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.

William Michael Morgan – Vinyl

You. In the back, near the exit sign. Yes you – the guy in the cowboy hat and starched shirt with the scowl and pretty sister. Oh, she’s not your sister? That’s too bad. You’ve been pissing and moaning about no ‘real’ Country music being played on the radio anymore (don’t get me going on what constitutes ‘real’). Well, it’s time to turn that frown upside down, bub, because William Michael Morgan is here to breathe a bit of old-school back into the genre.

Morgan’s eleven song Vinyl won’t please the bitching set who long for the days of Merle Haggard and George Jones, but fans of artists like Randy Travis and Alan Jackson will love it. From the opening rollick of “People Like Me,” to the album-closing romp of “Back Seat Driver,” Vinyl does not disappoint. The former is a telecaster-smoked track that straddles the line between old and new nicely, while the latter is a foot-stomping number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Blake Shelton album.

Introduced to audiences in March of this year with a self-titled EP and debut single, Morgan proves you don’t have to sell your soul to Rock and Roll to make it in Nashville. Although there’s plenty of good old-school leaning Country music being released these days, very little of it is being played on mainstream radio. Thankfully, Morgan’s voice and top 5 debut single “I Met A Girl,” an easy-going love song that will have listeners hitting repeat, were just too good to ignore.

It’s nice to hear steel guitars and fiddles that aren’t simply token props used to dress up Rock songs disguised as Country songs (Editors note: the author likes his Country Country and his Rock Rock). Morgan utilizes traditional instrumentation throughout Vinyl. The Mississippi native covers all the topical bases on the disc, as well, including good times (“Beer Drinker,” “Somethin’ To Drink About”), heartache (“Lonesomeville”) and love (“Spend It All On You”).

It’s rare for an album to live up to the hype that preceded it, but William Michael Morgan’s Vinyl does just that.

F*** Sturgill Simpson

By now most Country music fans have heard or read about Americana singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson’s rant against the Academy of Country Music. Simpson released a scathing rebuke of the ACM for naming an award after country legend Merle Haggard. The rant also took aim at Nashville for turning its back on Haggard in his latter years and took a swipe at current Country music. Simpson closed his hissy-fit-on-paper with “F*** this town. I’m Moving.”

Make no mistake, Simpson is a talent, but his rant came across as childish and pretentious. The ACM’s celebrated Haggard when he was at his peak, and they are continuing to celebrate him. The approval of artists who wear their lack of mainstream success as some kind of badge of honor is not needed (of course, most of these same artists would give their left eye to have a massive hit).

Country music encompasses so much, and what’s Country to one person might not be Country to someone else. I’m not into the so called Bro-Country (a goofy term created to divide music lovers), but I don’t believe guys like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan or the twosome who make up Florida Georgia Line are any more or less authentic than Simpson. Their music has it’s place, and right now it’s at the top of the charts. As much as some people don’t like it, the fans who buy the albums, concert tickets and merchandise drive the machine.

Maybe one day a young guy or gal will come along sounding like Randy Travis or Loretta Lynn (or Sturgill Simpson), and there will be a major shift to an old-school sound, maybe not. God knows they’re out there right now, like Simpson, slugging it out in the trenches. You can blame the radio programmers, you can blame the songwriters or the label execs, but in the end what sells is what these people are going to focus on. It is a business, after all.

In his rant, Simpson places himself in the same league as Jason Isbell. Isbell, who comes across as pretentious and bitter himself at times, has written and recorded two of the best Americana albums of the last decade. Isbell’s songwriting is progressive and modern sounding (and is as original as possible in a world where everything has been done). If you’re going to shoot your mouth off, you damn well better be releasing something on par with Isbell. (In my opinion, Simpson isn’t even close).

Here’s the thing, Simpson doesn’t get to decide what is or isn’t, as he put it, ‘actual country music’. As someone who grew up on Haggard and Jones, along with Hank Sr. and dozens of other great old-school artists, I’m well versed in the history of the genre, and there has always been a bitch-fest when new artists unseat the old. Music evolves or it dies. Get over it.

F*** Nashville? Nah, f*** Sturgill Simpson.