Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen: Watch This

As busy as they both are with solo careers, Texas singer-songwriters Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen always manage to find time to work together. Longtime friends, the tireless twosome hooked up in 2015 to record and release Hold My Beer Vol. I, a red dirt Country collection that owed as much to Lone Star State legends like Guy Clark and Radney Foster as it did to old-school traditionalist like George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Born out of a series of acoustic tours Rogers and Bowen undertake every year, Hold My Beer Vol. I harnessed some of the magic the duo creates on stage (albeit with a full band on the record). Thankfully, Rogers and Bowen have followed up their first duet record with a live release. Titled Watch This, the 18 song set captures the singer-songwriters completely stripped down in front of rabid Texas crowd.

From the opening rasp of Rogers’ “Tonight’s Not The Night,” to Bowen’s set-closing “Saturday Night,” Watch This proves Rogers and Bowen are all about the music. There’s no backing band, no fix it in the mix trickery, it’s nothing but acoustically rendered rawness from the two performers. Bowen’s voice holds up a little better than Rogers’ does in a live setting, but despite his short-comings, Rogers gives everything he has to the audience.

Hearing Rogers and Bowen casually trade songs on stage is an ear-pleasing experience. For those who haven’t had a chance to see the guys live, Watch This is the next best thing. Rogers’ reading of his Randy Rogers Band’s “Kiss Me In The Dark” is a bit rough, but the track loses none of it’s coolness. Bowen’s 2013 single “Songs About Trucks,” from his 2013 self-titled solo album, comes across well acoustically.

Although Rogers is not in the best vocal shape on Watch This, songs like the grooved “Buy Myself A Chance” and the salty “Too Late For Goodbye” are disc highlights. Bowen doesn’t really have a weak moment on the album, soaring on such tracks as the chunky “Trouble” and the jangly “You Had Me At My Best.” He also shines on the sulphurous “Mood Ring” and “West Texas Rain,” a new number from the singer-songwriter.

Live albums are often hit or miss affairs. The ones that have been fixed in the studio sound too polished, while the ones that are mixed straight from the soundboard and released as is are usually too raw. Watch This is as close to being in the audience at a Rogers/Bowen acoustic show as you can get, and it’s more than worth the price of admission.

Worth Another Look: Ronnie Dunn – Peace, Love And Country Music

Freedom: The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved (Oxford Dictionary).

For singer-songwriter Ronnie Dunn the word freedom meant being released from the creative straightjacket of the major label system. Dunn, formerly one half of award-winning, multi-platinum duo Brooks & Dunn, parted ways with Arista Nashville in 2012, after the label failed to give the Oklahoma native’s self-titled solo album a proper push. Despite landing in the #1 spot on the Billboard Country Charts and producing two top 20 hits, the album had a disappointing run.

Dunn jumped back in the saddle with Peace Love And Country Music, which he released on his own Little Will-E Records in 2014. The fourteen track collection was stacked with enough country twang and rock muscle to please old-school and new country fans alike. From the opening rattle of “Grown Damn Man,” a swampy tune equal parts Merle Haggard and the Rolling Stones, to the set-closing title track, Dunn did not disappoint.

Peace, Love And Country Music sounds like a true labor of love. Although all of Dunn’s solo music – along with most of the material he recorded as part of Brooks & Dunn – rings with authenticity, Peace, Love And Country Music is different. Maybe it’s the previously mentioned freedom from the major label machine, or Dunn’s drive to prove he still has a lot left in the tank, but the album is solid from start to finish.

Three of the songs, the beefy “Country This,” the sultry “Kiss You There” and the wistful “Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes,” were serviced to radio in the months leading up to Peace, Love And Country Music’s release. Despite being three of the best songs Dunn has ever laid down in the studio, radio ignored them. A war of words erupted on social media between Dunn and radio programmers, pretty much assuring the singer zero airplay for any future singles.

Songs like the tonking “Cowgirls Rock N’ Roll,” and the darkly sketched “Thou Shalt Not,” were hits where it counts, with the fans. The latter finds Dunn reeling from religious guilt that comes from early exposure to southern dogma – where everything is a sin and a man is doomed to an eternity of hell-fire for giving in to the desires of the flesh. More Americana than straight-up country (think Steve Earle or Ray Wylie Hubbard), the song is as far outside the box as Dunn has ever stepped.

“If it comes down to shalt nots, I don’t stand a chance/I got the devil on my coat tails, beggin’ me to dance/Gonna play this guitar loud, cry and moan the blues/While they shout from the mountains high what to and not to do,” Dunn chants.

With Peace, Love And Country Music, Dunn gave the middle finger to mainstream gatekeepers and decision makers, and ended up creating the best album of his career.

Time Machine: ZZ Top – Eliminator

By the time Texas blues rockers ZZ Top released their eighth studio album Eliminator in 1983, the trio was a well-oiled machine. The group had yet to chart a No. 1 single or album, but songs like the top 20 “Tush” (from 1975’s Fandago) and the top 5 “Tube Snake Boogie” (from 1981’s El Loco) had garnered them a solid following.

When Eliminator dropped, guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were already a household name, but fans who’d grown accustomed to ZZ Top’s raw blues rock sound had a huge surprise waiting for them when they popped Eliminator into the stereo.

ZZ Top had begun to incorporate keyboards into their music by the time they released Eliminator. While this type of left curve might have spelled the end for most bands, ZZ flourished. Songs like the disc-opening stomper “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” along with greasy rockers “Legs,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” became radio staples (and later rock classics).

The band hit all the right notes on Eliminator. The songwriting was exceptional, as was the production. Even non-singles like “I Got The Six” and “Bad Girl” were topnotch. There wasn’t one dud among the eleven tracks, a rare feat for an album in the ’80s. The disc sold over ten million copies in the United States, while four of the albums five singles were top 20 hits. Only “TV Dinners” failed to break the top 20 (it stalled just inside the top 40).

Eliminator was named one of the 100 Greatest Albums of The ’80s, and still finds its way into this scribe’s deck often.

Garth Brooks – Gunslinger

Remember when Garth Brooks was untouchable? When everything he released, be it a single or an album, turned to pure gold (or multi-platinum)? Up until his ‘retirement’ in the early 2000s, Brooks was king of the mountain, the artist everyone had to move out of the way for or get crushed by. Albums like No Fences, Fresh Horses, Sevens and Scarecrow were killer collections that sold tens of millions of copies. Brooks was an unstoppable force.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and Brooks is no longer the king of the mountain. He’s not even holding court in the foothills. His touring status remains strong, but his singles and albums since coming out of ‘retirement’ have not faired so well. Is it the content, or the fact that Brooks was out of the recording game so long? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to dig into the new stuff.

Brooks’ first full-length studio album since his ‘retirement’ – Man Against Machine – was easily his weakest collection to date. The album lacked the feel and fire of Brooks’ earlier material. The disc contained a few standout tracks, most notably the uplifting “People Loving People” and the sulphurous “She’s Tired Of Boys,” but the collection as a whole falls flat. Even the cover art – Garth looking all Terminator-like – is disappointing.

Anyone can slip off their game after being away for so long, so Brooks gets a pass for Man Against Machine. Hell, anyone can release a dud, even someone as good as Garth. Gunslinger, Brooks’ latest release, was going to be, for me at least, a make or break album (not that Brooks gives a damn what I think). The aforementioned No Fences, Sevens and Scarecrow are three of my favourite modern country albums, and I was convinced Gunslinger was going to be a return to that level.

Unlike years past, where the record labels would send me albums in advance of release day (sometimes months before they dropped), I had to actually shell out my own money for Gunslinger (I know, the horror). I didn’t mind, though, I knew Garth wouldn’t serve up another mediocre batch of songs. Expectation was high when I slid the disc into the car stereo. I had a long drive in front of me, and having some good music was going to ease the boredom.

From the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Somewhere,” I knew Gunslinger would be joining Man Against Machine in the albums I never listen to pile (and my drive was going to be long and boring). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong without multiple listens (and that’s not going to happen), but there’s definitely something missing in the grooves. Numbers like “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance,” “He Really Loves You” and “8Teen” aren’t bad, they’re just not that good.

Maybe in the hands of another artist, the songs on Gunslinger would fly, but with Garth at the mic, they never really get off the ground. “Bang Bang” is just straight up awful, one of the worst songs Garth has ever recorded. He can still sing, and he’s an amazing performer who lives for the stage, but on record (at least his last two) Brooks sounds bored.

He was once the fastest draw in town, but these days Garth Brooks the Gunslinger is firing blanks.

Leaving On A Jet Plane…

I arrive at Pearson International Airport in Toronto two hours before my flight. I have never flown from Canada to the United States. Apparently, to save time, passengers no longer get their tickets from a real live person. All of this is done using a kiosk, and like everything else at Pearson, they’re lined up all the way to hell. Once I find an open kiosk, I have to scan my passport and enter my personal information (information that’s on my passport).

I finish wrestling with the ticket kiosk, and the machine spits out a printed boarding pass and tags for my bags ($60, thank you very much – not even one free checked bag!). It’s only the beginning, however. Time to stand in another line. While in this line, I’m told by an airline employee that I need to go stand in a different line. Okay. Good thing I stayed at the airport hotel and got here early.

The new line is long (of course) and moves slowly. While waiting, another airline employee comes and asks if I’ve filled out an American customs declaration form? “No,” I say. I’m given a form and told to fill it out before I go through customs. “Where are the pens?” I ask. I’m told there’s a table down that way with pens. Okay. I finally make it to the front of the line. I lug my bags to check them. The lady working the counter tells me to put my bags on the scale. I do this. I’m told I need to take my bags, make a left and go to Gate F, I will check them there. I can’t miss it, she says.

Off I go, looking for Gate F.

‘You can’t miss it’ usually means ‘you’re going to walk right by it, fool’. That’s exactly what happens. While looking for the table filled with pens, I walk right by Gate F. I walk until I realize I’ve gone too far. I turn around and head back to my original location. I find the table for filling out the American customs declaration forms. Cool. Relief. Of course there’s not one pen to be found anywhere. I turn around. There’s my gate. But I need to fill out the form, and I don’t have a pen.

I head back to the ticket kiosk and a kind lady from Air Canada lends me her pen so I can fill out my form. I head back to Gate F and wait in line. Once I get to the front, an airline employee tells me I’m at the wrong gate. “No,” I tell her. “I was told to come to Gate F.” She frowns and says, “It’s busy now, you must go in through American customs. I scratch my head. “I thought this was American customs.”

Off I go again. I follow the American flags to the end of the terminal like I was told. There’s no sign telling me where to go. I see a bunch of people milling about in a large area. Some of them are going through a small corridor. “That must be it,” I tell myself and head that way. A young girl looks at my boarding pass, circles it with a yellow highlighter and tells me to go to Gate F. Yep, Gate F. The same gate I was at twenty minutes earlier. Okay. I head all the way back to F. I stand in line. A snarky lady asks me where I’m headed. “Nashville,” I croak – desperate for a drink of water. She points to a tiny corridor and say, “you need to go through there.”

I’m starting to sweat because I’ve burned up more than an hour shuttling from one end of the airport to the other. I finally get to the right place and I’m ushered through a doorway and told to get in line. There are at least 200 people in front of me waiting to go through customs. I look at the clock on the wall; my plane begins boarding in five minutes! The line moves painfully slow. I start to panic a little. I tell a Pearson employee that my plane is boarding. She looks at me and says, “I can’t pull you out of line.” “But I’m going to miss my flight,” I say. She ignores me and walks away. Glad I stayed at the airport hotel and got here early.

I finally get to the front of the line and have to give my passport and I.D. to a customs officer. She asks me my business in the U.S. (hey, didn’t I already explain all of this at the first kiosk on the customs declaration form?). I smile and tell her. She waves me through. I’m happy, until I have to get in yet another line and hand over my customs declaration form. Thankfully, it moves quickly. This make me happy. I’m told to take my bags and put them on the conveyor belt. Sadly, I find out, it’s not over.

After dumping my bags, I have to get in – you guessed it – another line. This one is to x-ray personal belongings and people. “Okay, almost there,” I tell myself. I take my laptop out of its bag and put it in one of the little plastic trays. “Take your shoes off,” a customs worker who can hardly speak English barks. Where am I? I wonder. Is this even Canada? Okay – shoes off, bag and laptop on the scanning line. I pop through the screening machine with no trouble. Here comes my laptop and shoes. Where’s my bag? There it is. I go to snatch it off the line and a man in a turban grabs it and walks off with it.

I put my shoes on, grab my laptop and follow the man to see what he’s doing. He tells me to open my bag. I open it. He starts rooting around inside, going through everything. “I’m going to miss my plane,” I tell him. He doesn’t respond but keeps on rooting around in my bag. By this time I’ve almost had it. Of course, you must remain calm in these situations. In an airport, you are not permitted to get angry, you’re an emotional punching bag with no rights.

Finally, the man in the turban says, “I’m looking for something.” I say, there’s another compartment. He hands the bag back to me and I open the other pocket. He roots around in there. “I’m going to miss my plane,” I say again. He doesn’t respond. Now he grabs a plastic tray and dumps all my stuff in it and heads back to the x-ray machine. He runs the whole lot through again, brings the tray back and hands it to me. “You can go.”

I throw my stuff back in the bag and head for my plane. I look on my ticket – Gate 34. I look up, I’m at gate 1000 or something like that (okay, I might be exaggerating a little). Dammit. Where is my gate? Where else? All the way on the other side of the terminal. I figure I’m likely going to miss my plane, but I remember I purchased insurance incase something happened and I missed my flight. At the time of purchase I wondered, “what could happen that I would need insurance?” Now I know.

Off I go. I feel like I’m moving backwards. I decide to jump on the moving sidewalk and jog. This actually helps. I avoid looking at clocks. I know I’m cutting it close. I see my gate in the distance. Finally. A lone airline employee stands waiting. All the doors are closed leading to the plane. I hand the guy my boarding pass. He doesn’t even look at it. He picks up the phone, dials a number and says dryly, “passenger Sterling has arrived. Can I send him down or should I take him to …” (this part is a little foggy as I’m out of breath and lightheaded). I wait.

Lone airline employee must have been transferred because he says again, “Yes. Hello. Passenger Sterling has arrived. Can I send him down?” A long pause. I resign myself to the fact that I’ll be taking a later flight – and dealing with a whole lot of headaches to make that happen. Airline employee hangs up the phone and says, “you better buy a lottery ticket today. They’re going to open the plane and let you on.” He points me down the corridor. I thank him.

I rush down the ramp and I’m greeted by two stewardesses. “Mr. Sterling,” they say. “Glad you could make it.” They smile and tell me to take my seat. Once I’m buckled in, I exhale and breathe a sigh of relief. My head is damp with sweat, as is my t-shirt and sweater, but I’m on my way to Nashville to record my debut album.

Ten Classic Rock Songs That Still Resonate

A gift for my five loyal readers (okay, so I inflated the number to boost my ego). Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favourite ‘classic’ rock songs. Of course if you were to ask me tomorrow, the list would be completely different.

Eagles – “Hotel California”

“On a dark desert highway/Cool wind in my hair/Warm smell of Colitas rising up through the air.” Who can forget the brilliant opening line from 1977’s “Hotel California?” Another #1 hit for the Eagles, the song’s haunting imagery and guitar interplay of Don Felder and Joe Walsh has made it one of the most famous tracks in the band’s catalog. Don Henley’s lead vocal is both spooky and mesmerizing.

Jackson Browne – “Running On Empty”

The title track from Browne’s biggest selling album (more than seven million copies sold), “Running On Empty” is a rock and roll classic. Who hasn’t turned to face the future without a hint of regret about the past and a slight twinge of fear toward the future? Browne rides a romping production as he searches for meaning in a life lived on the road.

Led Zeppelin – “Rock And Roll”

More than thirty years have passed since the death of drummer John Bonham and the subsequent breakup of Led Zeppelin, but the band’s music lives on. Zeppelin’s catalogue contains quite a few gems, but “Rock And Roll” is one of those songs that sticks in your brain. The rumbling bottom end of Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page’s monstrous guitar work, combined with singer Robert Plant’s from-the-gut wail, make “Rock And Roll” one of rock music’s high points.

AC/DC – “Back In Back”

Written as a tribute to late vocalist Bon Scott, “Back In Black” stands at the top of the list of classics from AC/DC. The title cut from the group’s first post-Scott album – and first featuring singer Brian Johnson – “Back In Black” signalled to the world that AC/DC were, if not better than they had been with Scott, at least as good. From the spooky high-hat countdown, to Angus and Malcolm Young’s dual guitar riffage and power chord chunk, “Back In Black” is unforgettable.

Foreigner – “Juke Box Hero”

By the time Foreigner released their fourth studio album, cleverly titled 4, in 1981, the group had become an international success. The second single from 4, “Juke Box Hero,” became a top 5 hit on the charts and is considered by many to be one of the band’s best songs. From the opening thud of the bass guitar, to the shimmering keyboards and Lou Gramm’s hypnotic vocals, the song draws the listener in. Add Mick Jones’ blistering guitar work into the mix, and you’re hooked.

Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”

Known for her 1977 hit “It’s A Heartache,” Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler enjoyed her biggest success with 1983’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” The song, taken from Tyler’s multi-platinum album Faster Than The Speed Of Night, was an international hit, peaking at #1 in numerous countries. With it’s haunting instrumentation and ghostly melody, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” made Tyler a household name. Tyler’s raspy vocals drip with raw emotion.

Bob Seger – “Night Moves”

There have been many songs written about coming of age, but few of them match the intensity and authenticity of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” A brilliantly crafted track about a guy and a girl fumbling around in the back seat of his ’60 Chevy, exploring each other and learning about love (or in this case, lust) with pure abandon. The song’s lyrics have a pulled-from-real-life quality that almost everyone can relate to.

ZZ Top – “La Grange”

Perhaps one of the coolest riffs ever laid-down on analog tape, “La Grange” grabs the listener by the crotch and doesn’t let go until the last note fades. Singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons lays on a contrived blues voice (to great effect), while Dusty Hill rattles his bass and Frank Beard pounds out a solid beat on his kit. Written about a legendary Texas brothel, “La Grange” is one of ZZ Top’s – and classic rock’s – coolest songs.

Motorhead – “Ace Of Spades”

“Ace Of Spades” is considered a classic by both heavy metal and rock fans. Iconic front man Lemmy’s elastic bass line and gravelly vocal drives the ragged and cacophonous tune. The song’s production is a bit rough and dated, but the ferociousness of the band’s performance is undeniable. The Ace Of Spades album, from which this song was taken, featured the classic Motorhead lineup of Eddie Clark, Lemmy and Phil Taylor.

Mike + The Mechanics – “The Living Years”

The co-writer behind Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer,” Mike Rutherford (the Mike in Mike + The Mechanics) was responsible for this great ’80s hit. “The Living Years” is an affective number about waiting too long to say the things that matter to the ones we love. The song, a massive hit worldwide, featured Paul Carrack on lead vocals. Rutherford, a founding member of Genesis, never matched the success of “The Living Years.”