Songwriter Spotlight: Bobby Pinson

As fast as he exploded out of the gate in 2005, singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson faded just as quick. Pinson took the country charts by storm with his gritty debut single, “Don’t Ask Me How I Know,” from his RCA debut Man Like Me. The 12 track disc was filled with enough wit and wisdom to make it one of the best major label debuts from a country artist since Steve Earle’s groundbreaking Guitar Town dropped in 1986.

From the southern fried “I’m Fine Either Way,” to the cow-punk anthem “Started A Band,” to the emotional title track and sobering “I Thought That’s Who I Was,” Man Like Me was as authentic as the scars on a prizefighter’s face. Pinson shadowboxed his demons throughout the album and came out the other side a better man. “One More Believer” had the Oklahoma-born, Nashville by-way-of Texas transplant making peace with God.

Despite critical and fan buzz, Pinson exited RCA in 2005.

Pinson’s meteoric rise and fall seemed to be just another sad tale (in a long line of sad tales) of an artist who had the goods but somehow got crushed by the gears of the music city machinery, only Pinson’s story has a happy ending. As a songwriter, the gifted wordsmith has had his songs recorded by the likes of Toby Keith, Trent Tomlinson, Brooks & Dunn and Rascal Flatts. Pinson was also one of the writers behind monster Sugarland #1s such as “It Happens” and “Already Gone.”

Once again an indie artist (he released I Mean Business on his own label in 1994), Pinson released Songs For Somebody in 2007. The eleven track disc carried a musical punch equivalent to Man Like Man. “Back In My Drinkin’ Days” and “If I Don’t Make It Back” were razor-sharp narratives that cut deep into emotional bone. Along with hard-hitting songs “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “If I Met God Tonight,” the disc matched Man Like Me pound for pound.

With a long rumoured new album coming on his own Cash Daddy label, and a catalog of songs that date back to the ’90s, Pinson is firmly entrenched in the Nashville songwriting community. He didn’t become a big star like many predicted in 2005, but Pinson made his mark where it counts, in the hearts of country music listeners and through the voice of other artists.

Christmas

The older I get the more I dislike Christmas. Of course, I can’t really say I ever liked the holiday to begin with. Now let me be clear: I enjoy seeing friends and family over the holidays, and eating turkey and all that good stuff, but the rest is complete bullshit. Even as a child I dreaded the season (along with a million other things). I did look forward to the break from school, but that was about it.

The Christians in the back row are shaking their heads and gasping and clutching their chests and mouthing, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Jesus has nothing to do with the season, and I doubt very much he’s celebrating a made up holiday. Call me Scrooge, or whatever other term you use for Christmas buzz-kills like myself, but the fact that we spend three weeks a year being nice to each other irks me.

If you believe in Christ. If you believe he is God incarnate. That he strapped on a human body, became flesh, blood and bone, to save us all. That’s great. But people going into debt to show how much they love their friends and family, doesn’t seem very Christ-like to me. Spending a shit-load of money on useless stuff to make yourself and others feel good, doesn’t seem Christ-like to me, either. But again, Christ has nothing to do with it.

Most historians and Biblical scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth was born sometime in the Spring, not in the winter, and certainly not on December 25. That Christmas is celebrated at the same time pagans celebrate the winter solstice raises a few eyebrows, but is likely just coincidence. None of that really matters, as far as I’m concerned. My issue is with the phoniness of it all.

If you believe in Christ, and in being loving and giving and doing good – hell, even if you don’t believe in Christ – why not be loving and giving all the time? Why should the focus of being kind to one another be just one day of the year – okay, not one day, but roughly a three week period that consists of cloying music, sappy made-for-tv movies and tons of silly commercials for things we don’t need?

After the holidays are over, people (most, not all) go back to being selfish and oblivious to the needs of others. It all seems so shallow.

Anyway, let me get down off my soapbox (there, it’s put away for now), and wish you all good things for the coming days, weeks, months and years. Oh yeah, and I almost forgot, Merry Christmas.

Open For A Big Name Artist (Well, Not Really)

“The (music) business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

-Hunter S. Thompson

So there I was, scrolling through Facebook, zipping past tons of useless memes and post-election stories about Liberals whining over the US election results (that seems to be what the majority of Liberals do these days), when I came upon an ad for a contest. Open for (insert major label Canadian act here) on his upcoming tour. The contest seemed simple enough. Record a video of yourself playing one of the artist’s songs, or an original.

Of course, going in I knew that no matter how good my song, or performance was, I would not be selected to open one of the ten slots on the tour. Why? Because contests like these are never what they appear. The Canadian music industry is so incestuous, one needs to be linked somehow to someone who knows someone to get a leg up. The results are always the same. This contest was not about giving an undiscovered talent a break, it was about publicity for the tour.

Who won the opening slots? Glad you asked. Not the kid in his bedroom, the young guy who works his nuts off writing songs and singing, trying to get a break – maybe open the door just a crack. It wasn’t the young woman who juggles three jobs to pay for her piano and vocal lessons (and live); the single mother who refuses to give up on her dream. The winners were all connected in the industry somehow. A couple of the acts selected were even directly connected to the artist who put the contest on.

There were some great entries from unknown performers; guys and gals as good as any one of the acts selected, some even better. But none of these folks ever had a shot. The fix was in from the beginning. And that gets my blood boiling. Selling false hope to young artists desperate for a break, to promote yourself and tour is lame and a bit slimy. I’m sure all involved would explain how the winners being connected is just some sort of coincidence.

I recall a friend, who at the time was the head of a record company in Nashville, telling me the story of one of the label’s superstar artists offering an unknown singer (and fan of said artist) the opportunity to open one of his tours. The superstar artist let the unknown singer pick as many dates on the tour as he thought he could handle. Big time artist asked and received nothing in return – no publicity, nothing. Now that, my friends, is class, not to mention really offering someone a break.

Time Machine: Radney Foster – Everything I Should Have Said

Far away from the mainstream machinery that creates a lot of fake good ole boys and girls (and outlaws alike); beyond the smoke and mirrors of modern top 40 radio, is where the majority of heart and soul artists live and breathe. Texas son Radney Foster is one such artist, a singer-songwriter who has always resided somewhere on the outskirts of ‘Guitar Town’. A from-the-gut vocal delivery and an ability to craft tales that cut to the deepest part of the listener’s soul set Foster apart from his peers.

Even though he flirted briefly with the mainstream as one half of the duo Foster & Lloyd in the late ’80s, and as a solo performer in the early ’90s, Foster has always been an outsider. The singer’s 1992 Del Rio Texas, 1959 major label solo debut produced four top forty singles, including the top 5 hit “Nobody Wins.” A few short years later, however, and Foster was thrown on the scrap heap of artists who didn’t fit the mold in Nashville and left for dead. But good art always finds a home, and Foster cut an indie path in the Americana world.

Everything I Should Have said, released on May 13, 2014, was Foster’s third full-length release for his own Devil’s River Records label, and his first album of new material in five years (his tenth album over all). The twelve track collection is as raw and real as anything  Foster has recorded in his career. From the sultry “Whose Heart You Wreck,” a smoky blues-injected number with junkyard instrumentation, to the unrestrained honesty of the disc-closing title cut, Everything I Should Have Said is a pure singer-songwriter record.

Foster slices his artistic wrists and bleeds all over the grooves of the album; he squeezes every last ounce of soul from his heart on songs like “California,” “Mine Until Morning” and “Lie About Loving Me.”“Not In My House,” an emotionally driven track that hits back hard at hate, is one of the most powerful numbers Foster has ever penned:

“There’s a guy on the street with a sign that says God hates fags, and that’s so wrong/ And it crushes my soul to see evil burn so strong/ Stones and sticks, politics, the devil holds your coat while you get in your licks/Why do we think so small when God’s so big,” Foster sings, before continuing, “‘Cause you don’t talk to my friends that way/You don’t talk to my brother that way/And you damn sure don’t talk to my daughter that way.”

Although his songs have been record by some of Country and Americana music’s best artists, hit makers like Sara Evans, Gary Allan, Keith Urban and the Randy Rogers Band, it’s Foster’s own readings of his compositions that pack the biggest punch. Expect Everything I Should Have Said to spend a lot of time in your stereo.

Parents

We grow up not realizing that our parents are more than just our parents. Mom and Dad don’t simply exist to make sure we are fed, watered, clothed and have a roof over our heads. They have hopes and dreams (many of which have been shelved to focus on their family) just like the rest of us. And even though it seems – at least when we are too young to know any better – that they are super heroes, when they cut, they do in fact bleed.

You know that dream you have of being a guitar slinger? Yeah? Well, maybe your Dad had that same dream. Maybe he had to lay his guitar down so you could pick one up. While you’re out there playing in clubs with your band on the weekends, banging out tunes on your Telecaster and acting like a rock star, your father is working a double shift at the Toyota plant so he can afford to pay for the degree that is going to actually feed you one day.

Did you know that sometimes late at night your mother sits and wonders how her life might have turned out had she not gotten pregnant? Where life would have taken her had she finished college and continued to pursue her dancing career? Not that she regrets giving it all up to raise you, but don’t think for a minute she doesn’t wish there had been a way to do both. She may be able to juggle pampering your ass, running a house and working a menial job, but that’s not all she is, or wanted to be.

We are so self-absorbed with our own dreams and needs, we take our parents for granted. (It’s inborn, so don’t feel too guilty.) But they’re not ATMs, or Taxis, or counsellors and life coaches (although they often play each of these roles at different stages of our lives) they are living, breathing humans, with feelings. Mom and Dad are not just voices on the other end of the telephone line when we want to talk about ourselves – our love lives, our fears, our hopes, etc. – they need an ear to bend now and again, too.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make here? Who knows? Maybe I’m just rambling. Maybe I like the sound of my own voice (yes, I can hear it while I type and read the words). Maybe the fact that my mother recently slipped over to the other side has me thinking about deeper things. Or maybe I’m just feeling a little self-righteous. At any rate, tell your parents how much you love them, and be grateful for everything they did for you, because they likely did the best with what they had.

Time Machine: Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction

By the time Guns N’ Roses released their debut album in 1997, hard rock music was ruled by bubblegum acts that cared more about their appearance than the music. Band’s like Motley Crue and Poison played the role of bad ass rockers, but their music was lightweight and contrived. When Guns N’ Roses dropped Appetite For Destruction, all bets were off. The twelve track collection was filled with the kind of from-the-gut rock and roll most bubblegum acts aimed for (but fell far short of).

Although the disc got off to a slow start, Appetite For Destruction would eventually become the bestselling American debut of all time (with more than 33 million copies sold worldwide). The album’s success can be traced to the raw realism contained within its grooves. From the opening rumble of “Welcome To the Jungle,” a seething battle cry of the damned, to the disc-closing jam “Rocket Queen,” Appetite For Destruction was as authentic and ragged as the five punks who created it.

Singer Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler captured lightning in a bottle. Songs like “Night Train,” inspired by cheap wine the Guns boys loved to guzzle in their formative years, and “Mr. Brownstone,” a percussive ode to heroin, cut deep. Curse-riddled tracks like “It’s So Easy” and “Out Ta Get Me” were razor sharp slices of life that scared the shit out of parents but had kids everywhere singing along.

Everything about Appetite For Destruction screamed controversy. Retailers refused to stock the album over the original cover art (the Robert Williams painting that gave the disc its title), so Geffen Records opted for the now famous skulls/cross cover. The ferocity of a song like “You’re Crazy,” a punk-metal track that made good use of the F-word, had the tongues of censors and media scribes wagging. It may be common to hear swearing in mainstream music today, but in 1997, it was rare.

It can be argued had Geffen Records not released “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as a single, Appetite For Destruction would have been just another great album the public missed altogether. Written for Rose’s girlfriend (and future wife), Erin Everly, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” climbed all the way to #1 on the charts in America. The song’s intricate guitar intro and sensitive lyrics won Guns millions of fans and pushed the album over the top. The epic followup single “Paradise City” sealed the deal.

Guns N’ Roses had the potential to become the next Rolling Stones, but in the end drug abuse, tyranny and egos destroyed the original band. Appetite For Destruction has stood the test of time, and remains the group’s best work to date.

Five Folk/Americana Albums Worth Searching Out

John Hiatt – Terms Of My Surrender

For his 22nd studio album, Americana kingpin John Hiatt turns out another dusty set of emotionally driven songs. The singer-songwriter – a legend among fellow muse chasers who has had songs recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffett – is in fine form as he digs deep in the musical soil for eleven tracks that cut close to the bone. Songs like the rattling blues romp “The Face Of God” and “Old People,” a comical narration on the aged, are simple and beautiful.

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues

He may be Canadian, but song-slinger Corb Lund’s music fits nicely alongside Americana acts like Robert Earl Keen and Ryan Bingham. In fact, after one listen to his 2014 offering Counterfeit Blues, it’s hard to tell if Lund is from Alberta, Mississippi or Texas. The twelve track collection, recorded live at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, TN, features re-worked versions of earlier Lund compositions alongside a few new songs. Highlights include the title cut and “Truck Got Stuck.”

Kevin Fowler – How Country Are Ya?

Kevin Fowler is too country for rock and too rock for country. Where does that leave the singer (who once played with metal act Dangerous Toys)? In the Americana genre, of course. Fowler’s latest release How Country Are Ya? is bursting with Stonesy electric guitars, sawing fiddles and liquid steel licks. Meat and potatoes country and rock with a side of blues tracks like the honky tonk “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and the comical “Chicken Wing” are some of the best Fowler has recorded to date.

Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Between 2001-2008, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell released a quartet of albums that shook the foundations of Americana. The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand, The Outsider and Sex & Gasoline are towering collections that stand out in an already impressive Crowell catalog. The Texas native’s 2014 release TarPaper Sky, while not as monumental, is brimming with soul-piercing songs, including the heartsore “God I’m Missing You” and the equally emotive, “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You.”

Steve Earle – Live In Nashville 1995

In 1995 Steve Earle was back from the brink, with a new acoustic album Train A Comin’ on the racks and a new lease on life. Clean and sober after years of addiction that had left him missing in action, Earle hit the road. A stop in Nashville in the fall of ’95, a ‘comeback’ show of sorts, was recorded for posterity and is finally seeing the light of day as a stand alone release. Earle shines on spirited renditions of “Hometown Blues” and “Copperhead Road,” bit no more so than on the poignant “Goodbye,” a duet with Emmylou Harris.