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The 2013 Country Music Awards, Starring 'Duck Dynasty'

Look, country music, we’re trying to work with you here. You are an original American artform. You spring from a deep storytelling tradition of struggle and woe, describing universal truths about the human condition in a plain but somehow poetic way. Sometimes it just seems like you’ve lost the plot completely, but then our faith is often restored by some of the artists working a bit outside of the mainstream, from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to the legendary Steve Earle or his son Justin Townes Earle.

But then the 2013 Country Music Awards happen and make the entire genre look like a caricature of big hats and mediocre pop masquerading as country. When the headlines coming off your awards show all highlight a parody performance by the redneckiest reality TV stars ever (Duck Dynasty), rather than a surprise win for Entertainer of the Year by respected country star George Strait, you better start doing some soul-searching. And how about the “Pinnacle Award” being awarded to a pop star who hasn’t recorded a country song in years (Taylor Swift)?

Then again, there were more good moments this year than last. In addition to Strait’s win, we got a tribute (featuring Strait and Alan Jackson) to one of the all-time greats, George Jones, who died this year, and nods to Kenny Rogers, an appearance by Alison Krauss, and Dave Grohl rocking the drum kit with the Zac Brown Band.

Below is the full list of winners. Until next time, save country music.

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Exclusive Q and A: Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook Shares How "Tornado" Lifts the Band to New Heights

In the past two weeks, Little Big Town earned it’s first No. 1 hit for the single “Pontoon,” received a Single of the Year nomination from the County Music Association, and watched as its just-released album Tornado ttook the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country chart and No. 2 on the Top 200 chart with 112,758 albums sold in its first week.

It’s almost too easy to say the vocal quartet”known individually as Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook”is a prime example of the old adage “good things come to those who wait.” But consider that it has been 13 years since the band formed and it just hit No. 1. And even “Pontoon,” which was released in April, didn’t really soar until the song was performed in June at the CMT Awards.

In the middle of the swirl of excitement, Jimi Westbook took a bit of time out to talk about the band, its new music, and just where they will go from here. (more…)

Your Country's Right Here: Janie Fricke Joins with the Roys for "The Country Side of Bluegrass"

Janie Fricke has once again added to her already hefty musical arsenal.

After going from a jingle singer (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Red Lobster are among the corporations that featured her vocals) to a back up singer for A-list hit makers including Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, to a duet partner with Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich, Fricke became an A-list singer herself starting with the 1981 solo hit Down to My Last Broken Heart. Now the singer, who has 18 No. 1 singles, is touring behind Country Side of Bluegrass and reintroducing her songs and voice to a new generation of fans.

At first when they asked me to do it, I thought it’d be pretty interesting, said Fricke of the album she completed with famed Nashville producer Bil VornDick. Then the whole plan came together that included [recording and some touring] with the Roys.

Combining the sound of the brother and sister duo of Elaine Roy and Lee Roy, two-time Inspirational Country Music Duo of the Year award winners, with the much-lauded Fricke whose awards include the much coveted CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Award, give the album’s 12 tracks (plus the Ring of Fire bonus track) true distinction.

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CMA Festival: Country's Night To Follow

The Country Music Association set the stage again for their annual CMA Festival in Nashville, TN. With artist appearances ranging from fan-favorites Taylor Swift and Shania Twain to newer guns like American Idol winner Scott McCreery, there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy.

But this isn’t your typical festival. Yes, fans do get to experience a weekend full of their favorite music, but this is a different business model. Artists volunteer their time, money and equipment to perform for them. What gives? As impressive as the lineup was and how many celebrities showed up to mingle with the crowd throughout the weekend, what’s more impressive is what purpose this gathering serves for the CMA. In 2006 CMA launched “Keep The Music Playing” (KTMP), a charity that supports music education in Metro NAshville Public Schools through the Alliance for Public Education. With the money raised from ticket sales and donations, the CMA has purchased nearly 4,000 instruments, funded music education campaigns, built music labs and donated to various regional charitable causes.

If a single institution can raise nearly 1.5 million dollars to charity in a single weekend event, how much of an impact could the collective efforts of the entire music world have on their surrounding communities? Yes, we’re all familiar with Live Aid and some of us in the younger crowd might have even been a part of the more recent Live 8, and these events had massive political backing. But this is a singularity: there is no consistency in what is done. Of course, there’s no denying the effect that tthe Live Aid concerts and rallies had, but it came and went. There was no follow-up, nothing continuous. It left our minds after the media hype was over. Since the CMA has a long-term investment with KTMP and needs to show results in order to keep functioning, it assuredly manages its funds and expenses in a decidedly more detailed manner. Not only that, but the whole country music community will be consistently aware of this particular social necessity.

Music has the power to bring people together: what better cause than this?

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.

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.