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Travel: The Judean Wilderness

Travel: The Judean Wilderness

The desert is clean physically & spiritually because the sun shines in every place and bakes it sinless. Nothing can hide from its righteouRead More...


The High To Keep You Satisfied

The High To Keep You Satisfied

This is an archived Sky Blue post originally published in May 2014. Not every difficulty is a storm: sometimes life is a drought. We do not aRead More...


Home Sounds: Chris Stapleton

Home Sounds: Chris Stapleton

I first became a fan of Chris Stapleton's voice during my bluegrass kick. He was the front man for The SteelDrivers at that time, and that voRead More...


Ears to Hear: How Does the Gospel Speak to Racism?

Ears to Hear: How Does the Gospel Speak to Racism?

Will Rogers once said: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” We all have drums we like to beat. But never doubt the capacity of the human hearRead More...

Entries Tagged as 'Home Sounds: Country Music'

Home Sounds: Chris Stapleton

Posted on: Saturday, May 6, 2017

Chris and Morgane Stapleton

I first became a fan of Chris Stapleton’s voice during my bluegrass kick. He was the front man for The SteelDrivers at that time, and that voice is unforgettable. When his solo album Traveller came out in in 2015, I had it on repeat for months. I couldn’t get over it: This album was golden old-school country happening now. Then I realized Stapleton is also one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville, behind many of the most recognizable and successful songs on country radio for years.

Of course, Chris has become something of a phenomenon since launching his solo career, especially after his duet with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMAs, where Stapleton pretty much cleaned house awards-wise. I saw him in concert the week after at The Fillmore in San Francisco, a historic music venue where tickets are typically pretty cheap. This time, I heard of tickets going for $600, and standing close to the stage was pretty much a life-and-limb risking situation. Chris plays every show with his wife, fellow singer and songwriter Morgane, and her harmony can be heard on his albums as well. Hearing them live made me feel extremely lucky; I think they’re the closest thing to Johnny and June I’ll ever get to witness in my lifetime.

On Thursday, Chris released Volume A of his new two-part album, From a Room. So I’ve been playing that non-stop.

Chris comes across as a genuine, humble, and generous artist. He never seemed too invested in his own fame or desire to be front and center–as Morgane told the New York Times, ““I think it’s why he’s always got a beard.” But his talent is absolutely out of this world. You should fall down a rabbit hole of his live videos on YouTube sometime–you won’t regret it. Chris is able to celebrate and carry on the traditions of country music effortlessly but his ego isn’t so wrapped up in himself as a “real country” artist that he can’t get out there and burn the house down with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs, or write a Top 10 track for a pop-country artist. He’s the real deal and I’ll be listening to whatever he and Morgane create for as long as they create it. Thank God for the Stapletons. 

Home Sounds: Ryan Bingham

Posted on: Saturday, September 17, 2016

If you love the voice of Ryan Bingham, then you love it out of the blue. At first it sounds raspy, discordant–then you hear that note of truth. It’s an old banged-up ring you find in a store off Route 66; tarnished and dinged, but then you bite and taste silver. Dylanesque, full of red dirt and experience. Husky, dusky, whiskey rough, distilled Americana, blues and soul, more than a little rock and roll.

You can hear Bingham’s history as a bullrider, rodeo cowboy, and ranchhand growing up in New Mexico in his voice–you can tell he has earned the right to sing folk. As he told Rolling Stone Magazine:

I can’t stand studios. When I started playing, I kind of lived out of my truck. I had a camper set on the back, and I’d just disappear out in the desert, or find these real desolate places and set up camp for a while and hang out. I still miss parts of that, when I was just rambling around out there.

It seems that part of that change in scenery came about in 2009, when Bingham’s song Weary Kind won him and co-writer T Bone Burnett a shelf’s worth of awards (Oscar, Grammy, Critic’s Choice, and Golden Globe) after being featured in the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart.

This sudden genre-crossing success changed nothing in Bingham’s musical path. In fact, he left his record label shortly afterward to self-release Tomorrowland in 2012, bucking the music industry to maintain control. As for his newest album, Fear and Saturday Night, all the songs were written in an Airstream isolated in the mountains of California. Bingham’s career is one of creative control and non-conformism.

I saw Ryan in December 2015, the first time he headlined the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. His live show reflected a newfound jubilance. In the tradition of folk, Bingham is bold enough to wear his heart on his sleeve: While Tomorrowland is an angry, bleak reflection after the deaths of his parents; Fear and Saturday Night is happier and lighter, reflecting his marriage and the birth of his daughter. Considering his choices so far, at 35 there is every reason to believe Ryan is an artist who will keep growing and being true to himself and his sound.

Home Sounds: A Tribute to Country Music

Posted on: Saturday, April 30, 2016

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”
– Johnny Cash

So, I’ll get the cheesy part out of the way first. And i’m not going to over-sentimentlize this. These are the sounds I grew up to…Johnny, Merle, Hank, Patsy, etc. I played competitive fiddle in high school, for goodness’ sake. So there’s that. I love country music.

It gets worse though. See, it would be easy to be a snob and lie and tell you I only like “the good stuff.” The stuff hipsters add to the rotation in their coffee shops. But, nah. I like the crappy, sup-par stuff, too. Kenny Chesney sounds like high school football season to me. Sometimes, Dierks Bentley sounds exactly like the windows down in a boy’s truck when you’re sitting in the bucket seat and the passenger seat is open. Miranda Lambert makes me so homesick I could cry. And if you think, “that’s not country,” just, hush. People have been saying “That’s not country” since the term country music entered our vocabularies. I mean, what is country music anyway? You’ve got banjos, which are from Africa. You’ve got the Scotch-Irish fiddle. You’ve got Mexican influence. There’s Texas cowboy country and there’s Appalachian bluegrass. There’s outlaw country and there’s Southern rock. In fact, to me, nothing in today’s music sounds more like the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1970s than country music. So I dare you to come up with a definition of country music. It seems to me one of the only things that unifies country music is someone griping “That’s not country music.” Just listen to Hank Williams sing “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” It sounds like a Billboard country chart-topping single Sam Hunt would release if Sam Hunt was playing in 1952. It appears country boys have always appreciated partying, beer, and pretty women. You don’t have to like today’s music. I don’t like a lot of it either. But saying it’s not country? People said that about Johnny Cash.

So I can appreciate a little of everything they play on the country radio station. But my favorites are always gonna be the old guys, the Highwaymen, and the people who sound most like them. And in response to the pop country sound, there have been a lot of roots-returners. That’s who I’d like to honor in this space, a new Sky Blue feature.

Growing up in a small town where only a couple of radio stations came in without static (and then only in certain parts of the valley), at some point around college I realized I needed a music education. I listened to everything I could. I even went through lists such as Rolling Stones Magazine’s “Top 500 Songs Of All Time” and listened to every single track. I read everything I could about modern music history and artists. I don’t know a lot about classical music, to be frank. It doesn’t interest me as much. I wanted to understand what makes my people and my culture tick, and nothing provides a faster or more accurate history and sociology lesson than listening to a bunch of music.

After all of that, I learned a few things about myself and my world and my tastes, but mainly I learned that I still loved my childhood music best.

See, I have never liked modern indie/folk music. I’ve given it a shot. But to me, most of it just sounds like the artist is trying too hard. I guess that’s the one thing that I would say unifies and defines “true” country music. Honesty.

This world is full of pretense. But when I play Johnny Cash it sounds to me, as Bob Dylan said, like a “voice from the middle of the earth.” In fact, here is the full quote:

“In ‘55 or ‘56, “I Walk the Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. “I Walk the Line” had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like “I find it very, very easy to be true” can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it.

Johnny wrote thousands of lines like that. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.”

This is perfect. Bob Dylan describes exactly what the best country music can do. And that’s what I’ll be sharing in this space, with each post featuring a new artist or album that captures some of that honesty, that mortality, that humanity. If you love country music like me, then I hope you like this new section. I talk about Johnny (and Merle and Willie and Patsy, et al) all the time, I know. But this is more than that. This is about finding great music in our generation; something we can identify with, hold on to, and pass on. This section will be all about people who are carrying the baton.

Comment or email to tell me your favorites. After all, love = sharing playlists.

“Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.”
-Johnny Cash

“If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words”
― Dolly Parton

“You have to grow up, start paying the rent and have your heart broken before you understand country.”
― Emmylou Harris

“Country music is the poetry of the American spirit.”
― Steve Maraboli

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