(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
And now for something completely different. A little really good music with some meat on its bones.
There’s good news just down the road with a full-on assault from Jamey Johnson and some tasty music from an intriguing new duo.
As a fervent Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings devotee, I was thrilled when I first heard Alabama native Jamey Johnson’s early recordings. He has that same primitive, primal and pioneer musical spirit. And he shows the total fearlessness of that music. The music is not afraid to go anywhere or to explore anything or to ask any questions. And it sometimes pays off enormous dividends and sometimes yields huge losses. But the pluses usually win.
After 2008’s That Lonesome Song, Johnson comes back with a blockbuster, 25-song double CD. Get ready for Sept. 14. That’s the day his The Guitar Song will be released. The two CDs are titled the White Album and the Black Album. I’m sure you can guess that one is intended as songs aimed at descent, the other directed to a spiritual ascent. The Black Album contains 12 songs; the The White Album has 13. His website has the video of his live performance of the White Album’s “Macon” from the recent CMT Music Awards. Johnson’s MySpace page has several audio clips, including the album version of “Macon” and of “My Way to You,” which closes the White Album.
I got the whole 25-song package as an advance copy, which is entirely too much to absorb in one listen. But what I have heard and assimilated thus far is incredibly encouraging and stimulating. We’re in for a good fall of music, with Jamey’s big contribution and with new music coming from Little Big Town and Sugarland and my favorite Texas woman singer, Sunny Sweeney.
Johnson’s Black Album — which is supposedly the downer side of the project — begins with the loser humor (which is actually quite funny here) of a great country song, “Lonely at the Top.” Payoff words: “It might be lonely at the top/But it’s a bitch at the bottom.”
This is mostly original Jamey compositions or co-writes, but there are a few other memorable covers, such as Vern Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up Joe,” Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” and Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.”
How hard-core is this line from “Can’t Cash My Checks”: “It’s so hard to stay honest in a world that’s headed to hell.”
To tell you the truth, at least through just my first listening of this whole work, it’s mostly hard to tell the difference between the Black and the White albums because it’s all Jamey’s gritty reality. Which is very, very real. “California Riots” is on the White Album, and how upbeat is that? And “Baby Don’t Cry” on the Black Album sounds very hopeful to me. But the songs all fit together very nicely. I’m ready for many more extended listenings.
Lady Antebellum’s revolutionary return to well-written songs, melodic delivery, good harmony singing and direct musical simplicity and honesty may actually lead to some far-reaching changes in country music.
One piece of evidence is a new duo I’ve been listening to quite a bit lately. And they sound and look fairly subversive. First of all, they love traditional country music — they favor music from the likes of Buck Owens and Hank Williams and George Jones. Songs such as “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)” and “Why Baby Why.” And they especially lean toward Hank’s gospel songs, such as “House of Gold.” Their own original songs suggest some of the best musical values from country music’s legacy. And they also conjure exotic pop songs, such as Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Something Stupid.” They have that lovely family harmony singing that evokes the glory days of the Everly Brothers.
And their look! These are two sisters who actually wear dresses! And these are demure dresses that don’t actually reveal anything! Astounding! Shocking and daring! Lady Gaga would be all agog.
These women seem to be all about the music. They call themselves the Secret Sisters and they actually are sisters from Muscle Shoals, Ala., Laura and Lydia Rogers, by name. And they are dead serious about their music. They came by the office here the other day to sing a few songs and chat for a while. They were totally charming — and, hey, I’m not easily charmed. They were in Nashville, they allowed, to cut a couple of songs with Jack White producing in his studio. At his invitation. Apparently, Jack has also been charmed by them.
Their vocal sound is at once innocent and pure but very knowing. They are very confident in what they are doing and realize that it will not appeal to everyone, and they don’t worry about that.
The Secret Sisters are to trad country music what Jamey Johnson is to trad honky-tonk music. Honest and direct and totally unassuming. And such musical developments are very heartening.
Their album is coming in September on Universal Republic. There is, unfortunately, nowhere to listen to music previews right now. They have a fledgling MySpace page with just a little bio and no music on it yet. If you’re really, truly interested and you can pass a thorough background check, you can come by the office and I’ll play you some cuts from my advance copy of the CD.