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Your Country's Right Here: Risa Binder Makes Country Pop

Risa Binder not only lives in Nashville, she revels in it.

The country-pop singer songwriter may have grown up in Columbia, Maryland, but her heart was in Music City, after she found Loretta Lynn and then other icons such as Alison Krauss. Little wonder that the reality of living and working in Nashville — not to mention actually having Krauss drop by the studio in which Binder was recording her debut “Paper Heart” — still takes her breathe away.

“I just go and sit in the Bluebird Cafe and soak everything up,” said Binder. “Nashville is so crazy. It’s so exciting to be hear and hear a song come to life and play it and know others hear it. It’s all about everyone creating music.” (more…)

Your Country's Right Here: Amber Rubarth Wows at FloydFest

The headliners at this year’s FloydFest”including Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Brandi Carlile, and the Drive-By Truckers”were  as amazing as you’d expect from internationally known and much-lauded musicians. But the real treat at the 11th Annual FloydFest, a four-day world music festival in Floyd, Virg., was arguably the array of up-and-coming artists certain to burst into prominence not too far into the future.

Amber Rubarth was clearly at the front of that line. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider she’s a fixture on New York’s indie scene and has won such accolades as the Grand Prize in NPR’s Mountain Stage New Song Contest. Her recent album A Common Case of Disappearing, which features duets with Jason Reeves and Jason Mraz, debuted at No. 13 on iTunes. Watching her spin her musical web of alt-country, folk tunes on various stages at FloydFest, one couldn’t help but be struck by her poise and warmth, which translated into her music.

“I was really shy growing up,” said Amberth when discussing her set. “Music gave me the outlet to be able to get out my feelings and get out things I wanted to say that were more personal, even if I couldn’t say it in a conversation. It’s really powerful for me. It’s a way of healing, releasing, really.”

Those feelings translated to the audience, too, when Rubarth joined the Ivy League Hillbillies set that had nine up-and-coming musicians on stage and when she played her own sets”including a brand new song “The Maiden and the Ram,” that got the audience dancing.

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Your Country's Right Here: Mountain Heart Reaches New Musical Peak

It’s difficult to remember the last time I was as excited about a band as I am about Mountain Heart.

So much for the impartial journalist, right?  But really, if I hear one more band tell me they embrace new members and then stick with the tried-and-truewell, you get the picture. The result, as we all know, is same-old-same-old until the “new” members leave because they aren’t creatively challenged. Yes, the music world is alive with bands that have morphed into their own tribute bands.

But I digress.

No one would have blamed the members of the much honored Mountain Heart, really, if it stuck with its strictly bluegrass formula. After all, that’s the ticket that won them the 1999 Emerging Artist award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and plenty other awards and kudos thereafter.

Of course, the band mates all had their musical chops down long before that. Founders Steve Gulley and Barry Abernathy had plenty of musical street cred before enlisting Jim Van Cleve, then a teenage fiddler they had worked with in Quicksilver, to join them. Adam Steffey, who had worked with Alison Krauss & Union Station, and bassist Johnny Dowdle were also part of the band.

It’s so telling of the current band members’  attitudes that they announced their newest members withticker-tape-parade enthusiastic announcements while still paying tribute to those who were leaving.

Consider the announcement they made late last year when multi instrumentalist Seth Taylorwho the band called “one of the most talented young ‘musicians’ alive” joined the band. Even though Taylor has played with everyone from the Charlie Daniels Band to his “unofficial mentor” Brad Paisley, it is still the rare musicians who will laud a new member in such a way.

And what a refreshing change that is to read. No wonder their new music, which is still based in bluegrass, mixes in more than a fair amount of country, jazz and other formats (don’t worrythey haven’t gone all rock on us though there is rock and R&B in the sound, too!).

“The funny thing about the record Mountain Heart is that it started as bluegrass,” said Van Cleve. “In 2007 [lead vocalist Josh Shilling] joined the band and that was the first day of the new era of the band. We have grown so far beyond any one [musical] description.”

And that growth started right away because Shilling, a talented Nashville songwriter as well as a key that unlocked more of the Mountain Heart band’s creativity, wrote or co-wrote each of the four new songs featured on the group’s live album The Road That Never Ends. The title track reached No. 4 on the Billboard bluegrass charts. That foreshadowed the success of the band’s next studio album That Just Happened, which went to the Top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass charts.

The funny thing about this story is that the band’s sound engineer first heard Shilling sing live and told the band they needed to hear him. Although his vocals weren’t in keeping with the band’s tried-and-true formula, Van Cleeve, Abernathy and the others rolled the dice and invited him to join. Now the band, that includes Jason Moore on bass and Aaron Ramsey in mandolin and dobro, just might need to clear more room on their trophy shelves.

“It was a gutsy call,” said Van Cleeve with a chuckle when talking about adding Shilling. “It could have gone in a lot of different ways but we had faith. He’s taken us to some amazing places musically.”

Find out more about the band and its music, including upcoming tour dates, at their Web site.

 

 

Sound And Vision: Strange Bedfellows — The Best of Music's Unlikely Collaborations

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” Ringo Starr sang on the Beatles‘ 1967 classic. These days, so do many of music’s top stars. Two’s company, and so is three and sometimes four. The more the merrier, the higher and higher they get.

On the charts, that is.

In the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week ending December 10, seventeen songs were collaborations between separate recording entities. Four of them featured Drake, and three apiece featured Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both appeared on tracks with Drake and with each other. But will.i.am featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger”and debuting at No. 36 with “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” which the threesome performed on the November 20 American Music Awards”was probably the one that nobody saw coming.

Old-school Rolling Stones fans must be cringing at the idea of Jagger going anywhere near Lopez and will.i.am so soon after Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera went to No. 1 by invoking his hallowed name on “Moves Like Jagger.” But for a sixty-something legend like him, hit records”even if in name only, a la Duck Sauce‘s GRAMMY-nominated “Barbra Streisand”are a near-impossible dream unless they’re in tandem with other, often younger, stars.

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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?!

Day 2: Future of Music Coalition's Policy Summit 2010

The second day of The Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Summit covered a ton of topics for musicians and music entrepreneurs alike. On paper, some of the sessions may have seemed unrelated, but it was great to see how it all wove together by the end.

Rocco Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a powerhouse Broadway producer”who pleased many in the art world when he took on the new role”gave a terrific keynote speech about the value of arts in both the cultural and economic communities.

Landesman’s talk was followed by a closer look at the spread of broadband to rural communities, housing for artists and opportunities for musicians to perform overseas as part of cultural programs organized by the US Department of State. The session featured presentations from Jonathan Adelstein (Administrator, Rural Utility Service, US Department of Agriculture), Maura Pally (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Exchanges, US Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs) and Ron Sims (Deputy Secretary, US Department of Housing and Urban Development) and a subsequent conversation with attendees at the summit. The session helped explain why the current administration’s support of broadband expansion into rural areas matters to musicians (more online reach, more potential fans), cultural exchange programs (reaching new audiences while traveling the world and representing the US as peaceful musical representatives) and affordable housing (recognizing that not all musicians or artists can afford fair market prices”even if neighborhoods often like to tout their artistic population). The session helped connect the dots about why we, as citizens, need to be support public servants and representatives who understand the value of the arts in our greater culture. Subsequent conversation featured some fascinating stories (that would make any musician jealous) from Amy Blackman, the manager of Ozomatli, about the joys and challenges of their trips overseas to Asia and Africa.

The FMC is all about creating a “middle class of musicians” that is more sustainable. In continuing the thread of “musicians running themselves as a small business,” sessions covered subjects like managing and understanding all the data available now for anyone who has a web site or manages their presence on third party sites. This particular panel included Danah Boyd, the Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research; Eric Garland, Founder/CEO at BigChampagne Media Measurement (a new media and data measurement site) and musicians Erin McKeown and Tim Quirk.

In “Who’s Your Ticket Master Now? The Magical Mashup Between Live Music and Social Networks,” attendees learned how quickly Ticket Master”and its service fees”is being out-maneuvered by web ticket start-ups like Ticketweb, Ticketfly and Tickets.com. There was also talk of an interesting idea from Australia called Posse, where musicians and venues can utilize fans to help sell tickets and receive a commission. The session included Ian Hogarth, co-founder and CEO of Songkick, a free service where you can track bands who are coming to your town. One of the most interesting comments came from Donna Westmoreland, the COO of Washington, DC’s 9:30 club about how many of their concerts are selling out simply by being announced to their email subscribers, reducing their need for additional advertising or marketing.

The latter part of the day included two interviews and conversations. First was Kara Swisher of All Things Digital speaking with Tim Westergren, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of  Pandora about his company’s strategy and where people will likely be using the service in the near future”from desktops to laptops, iPhones and Android, to iPad and tablets to cars and seemingly everywhere in between. Westergren laid out the company’s plans more as an advertiser-funded model than any other source, and acknowledged that the platform’s success.  According to a third-party study, the site simply helps sell more recorded music”43% of users bought more music after they used Pandora while only 1% bought less music, which is a great stat for those who assume online music is cannibalizing other music revenue sources.

The second conversation was a great reality check amid all of this digital change. Greg Kot, music critic at The Chicago Tribune and co-host of Sound Opinions interviewed T. Bone Burnett, the musician, composer and producer who has worked with Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Sam Phillips, John Mellencamp and many more. Burnett, as a consummate audio producer, is weary about how online delivery of music has greatly degraded the quality and experience of the music we consume and provided a great reminder that the most important thing in being a musician is to make great musicš to aim there first and let the marketing be secondary as you make great art. You can read more about the interview from Kot’s page in The Chicago Tribune.

Learn more about the Future of Music Coalition’s 2010 Policy Summit speakers. Find more links and follow us live at The Future of Music Coalition’s Summit 2010. Search the hashtag #fmc10 to read up on this and more.

What's Brewing In Country: Band To Fan Loyalty

Picture the beer taps at your favorite pub for a moment and think about how you always tell the barkeep you want the brew from a particular one.
Now picture the beer taps sans logos but with faces of major country music stars (seriously, stay with us here) “ Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Alison Krauss, Taylor Swift, and the Court Yard Hounds for starters. The suds and the stars may have more in common than you think.

It’s a good bet you are loyal to your beer of choice and not just because of taste. Grassroots marketing likely made it a staple with your family and friends who introduced you to it as if it was another friend. That’s the same reason many fans pledge allegiance to certain country musicians.

Unlike musicians in rock, pop, hip hop and other formats, it’s fairly unusual for country musicians to appear on YouTube or MySpace one day and on major heavy rotation lists the next. A lot has changed since the Grand Ol’ Opry was appointment radio, but one thing has remained true “ country fans put enormous stock into country musicians that honor the community.

To determine which of the up-and-coming country performers of today — Lissie, Sons of Sylvia, Truth & Salvage Co. to name a few “ will be tomorrow’s amphitheatre stars, consider their commitment to their fans.
Let’s face it “ Taylor Swift didn’t have a 15-hour meet and greet at this summer’s CMA Music Fest in Nashville because she found herself with downtime “ she did it because country royalty is made and broken by fan interaction.

Photo Credit: www.jeffography.com

Doubt that? Consider the Zac Brown Band. Less than 10 years ago, Zac Brown was just another guy in Georgia with a small family business “ Zac’s Place, a restaurant he owned and managed with his dad — and a dream. On weekends he’d grill up food, invite the members of the Zac Brown Band over to play, and create his own mini festival right outside the restaurant. Weekdays the band spent on the road playing concerts and hosting eat-and-greets to build the fan base.

Although Zac’s now flying high with awards, sold-out shows and critical acclaim, he frets about not having enough face time with his fans. That’s one reason the group bought a new culinary trailer, so they can feed more fans when the band tours behind its September 21 album release “ aptly named — “You Get What You Give.”

You don’t need to ask if Bomshel, Gary Nichols or Megan Mullins will be tomorrow’s mega country star. Watch how loyal they are to fans and vice versa. Then you’ll know.

Nancy Dunham

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

COUNTRY CALL 'EM: TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE

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Sharing the spotlight is something very few superstars are willing to do. Unless of course, you’re a country singer gearing up for an unforgettable duet. In an industry that celebrates teamwork with awards like “Musical Event of the Year,” “Duo of the Year” and “Group of the Year,” synergy is an art form that always succeeds in the ears of country fans.

The duo singing in the video

The duo singing in the video

In what I see as the pinnacle of duet dynamite, we have Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss‘s Whiskey Lullaby. The combination of Krauss’s soft, melodic voice with Paisley’s sharp but complementary vocals made this duet memorable long after its 2004 release. Whether it was the blend of two finely tuned voices, or the devastating lyrics that could draw a tear from the toughest cowboy, this song rose all the way to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, and won CMA awards for Musical Event of the Year and Best Music Video.  Krauss, who is often credited as the accompanying pipes on many a’ country duet (like When You Say Nothing At All, a duet that emerged after layering her solo version with that of the original singer, Keith Whitley), truly has the voice of an angel, able to capture emotion and beauty with as single note. Alison released a compilation CD of both her most successful solo performances, and the plethora of duets she has contributed to, called A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection. Paisley is no stranger to stellar duets either. Brad  worked with icon Dolly Parton on  When I Get Where I’m Going, a song about what they each hope happens when they reach the afterlife. Most recently, Brad earned another CMA nomination for Musical Event of the Year for his 2009 duet Start a Band with country rocker Keith Urban. It seems whatever song either one of these Nashville hit-makers touchs is sure to turn to Billboard and award show gold.

Performing the duet live

Performing the duet live

How about picturing this kind of musical gold”a bad-boy rocker breaking down in a song of heartbreak with one of Nashville’s most beautiful voices. That’s what happened when Kid Rock teamed up with Sheryl Crow for their chart-topper Picture. Both of these artists are a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, so the song is a butt-kickin’ ballad chock full of gritty voices and raw emotions. The track was the first country single either had released, and it proved to be more successful than any either had achieved before. Peaking at Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and being nominated for a CMA Vocal Event of the Year in 2003, the song received accolades for its vocal and instrumental perfection. Clearly this duet was the missing piece to the puzzle of both Kid Rock and Crow’s burgeoning country careers, as both have taken off and continue to produce amazing singles that carry on their legacies as Nashville success stories.

Mr. Chesney

Mr. Chesney

The Nashville hit-making title may belong to Mr. Kenny Chesney. So what happens when you

Mr. Matthews

Mr. Matthews

combine his signature style with that of fan favorite Dave Matthews? You get a laidback duet that screams Number One of course. I’m Alive has been hitting the airwaves in full force recently, and not only are the vocal stylings inspiring, but lyrics like And today you know, that’s good enough for me. Breathing in and out’s a blessing can’t you see. Today’s the first day of the rest of my life. And I’m alive and well truly make this a song anyone can stand behind. You can always leave it to Kenny to remind us what is important in life, and paired with Dave Matthew’s songwriting chops, this song reaching the top spot is inevitable.

It seems that no matter who these stars pair themselves with, hits are sure to follow. From country legends to novices on the charts, teamwork is proving to be a sure-fire way to success. We all know that two heads are better than one, and these country duo’s are proving that two voices are clearly better as well.