Hail to the Chief! The Night Eric Church Made it Rain

Everybody who loves live music has a bucket list of artists they want to see. The list can be in your head or even a physical list. And usually many of those artists can sit on a list for years. We all know the reasons that can come up: not enough time, money, artist never coming to your city, scheduling conflicts, etc. So every time you miss out and wait just a little longer, the anticipation just builds even more towards the day you finally cross that artist off that list. Eric Church is one of those artists who sat near the very top of my list for years.

There have been various reasons why I hadn’t seen him yet. But mainly because he usually only comes to Cleveland when he passes through my home state of Ohio and driving to Cleveland has always been hours away for me. So when I saw he was coming through Columbus finally, I had to snag a ticket. Especially coming off the heels of what I found to be a great triple album in Heart & Soul (an album that’s a lock for my year-end list). With all these years of anticipation combined with a great new album, it prompted to me spend more money than I ever had for a concert ticket. I decided to grab a pit ticket so I could be right up next to the action. After going 95% of 2020 and most of 2021 without live music, I decided I earned this reward.

So the day I finally cross Eric Church off my bucket list arrives and I’m actually a bit nervous as I make my short drive to Nationwide Arena. Usually I’m not nervous going to a concert, but I know why I am for this one. For one, it’s that anticipation I hit on above. The more the anticipation builds, the higher the expectations can get. What if I’m disappointed? What if I feel like I wasted my money spending so much for this ticket? And then the other aspect on my mind: this being an arena show. My rule with them is I only do one per year for a few reasons: 1) The cost and 2) Arena shows lack the energy and vibe I enjoy at concerts that I feel like I almost always get at smaller, more intimate venues. It’s not that I’ve never had a bad experience at an arena show, but it just lacks that certain feeling of passionate exuberance that you can only get at a great concert. An arena show has never came close to being my favorite show from top to bottom.

After finding a spot in a parking garage, I start to make my walk to Nationwide Arena. This was actually my second time I’ve been here, as I had previously saw Willie Nelson here on the Outlaw Country Festival tour a few years earlier. It was a pretty good show, but it was nowhere near full capacity. As I approach the front of the arena, I quickly realize how many more people are going to be at this concert compared to the Nelson one. There were hordes and hordes of people lined up to get into the arena and an almost equally long line to the Church merchandise tent. Seeing this many people floored me! Once I get inside and make my way to the floor, I’m even more awestruck as I look around me and watch the entire place fill to near full capacity. Nationwide Arena can hold up to 20,000 people, so this is the biggest show I’ve ever been to so far in my life.

Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t point out there’s a whole global pandemic happening right now and I’m in an arena full of around 19,000 or so people. I will say the arena did require masks and there’s currently an ongoing indoor mask mandate in Columbus itself. All the staff at Nationwide Arena also wore masks. And then maybe 5% of the audience (if even that), including myself, wore masks. You can’t blame the arena for not being able to properly enforce this rule on several thousand people. This is especially the case when a lot of them are drinking too. Shout out to the guy who spilled his beer right next to me before the show even started. It somehow didn’t splash me though and I’ll give him some credit for actually seeking out a staff member to help mop up the mess. The same can’t be said of another person later who also spilled their beer near me, but I was in the splash zone this time. See the contrasts between crowds I was alluding to in my Japanese Breakfast post? Indie rock crowds and country crowds clearly have some differing opinions on wearing masks and beer consumption at concerts.

And one more thought on drinking beer at concerts. I love a cold beer, granted I don’t like to drink several rounds of them. But I totally understand how much a cold beer can hit the spot, especially when you’re at a concert. However, I don’t understand people who drink them excessively at concerts. For one you have to stand in a long line several times throughout the show every time you get a drink and on top of that you have to make several trips to the bathroom. To me that’s a ton of lost value because you’re missing out on so much music. I guess the point of a concert for me is to see the music, not get plastered. I paid a ticket for a show. I don’t mean to come off as lecturing on a soapbox here, but I just don’t understand why you would pay money for a ticket (a lot of money for the pit area) only to miss half the show due to being in line for beer and the bathroom. It just feels like the whole purpose of going to the concert is defeated, but I digress…

I quickly forget about all these shenanigans. Because the arena lights have gone out and they’ve been replaced by colorful, flashing lights and smoke machines filling the whole place. Eric Church, Joanna Cotten and his band make their grand entrance to the stage. And once in their place, Church begins to play the opening notes to “Through My Ray-Bans.” The light, mystical strings that open the song begin to fill the arena. “Everybody’s got their arms around/Everybody else’s shoulders. Guardin’ against the world outside/Like an army of Friday night soldiers. The battle wages tomorrow/But tonight you don’t give a damn. Wish you could stay the way I see you through my Ray-Bans.” The words ring so strong and they’re so appropriate for a tour dubbed The Gather Again Tour. While there were no arms around shoulders, at least in my section, here we were all together again and taking in music together. In a little moment like this you just take it in and appreciate it for what it is. Church set the tone perfectly by opening with this song. At the end of the song he pumps his fist and he’s fired up. He’s clearly ready to deliver us a kick-ass show.

Then he and his band blister their way through “Desperate Man” and “Stick That in Your Country Song.” The former song feels like a nice “step up” in energy and it’s also one of my favorites from Church. It’s also a ton of fun to sing along with live, especially the “doo doo doo” part. The latter song was just as energizing in person as I expected it to be, as you could just feel the electricity in the room go to a fever pitch. A few songs in I’m starting to really appreciate the stage set up, as it’s set “in the round.” In other words, the stage is set right in the center of the arena and the band and Church is able to constantly move around the stage and play in front of every part of it. By doing this everybody, no matter where you were seated, got a great glimpse of everyone on stage throughout the night. Even the drummer and piano players were remote controlled from side to side, which I thought was cool! And for “Stick That in Your Country Song” my side got our first up close glimpse of Joanna Cotten, whose voice is even more incredible to hear live. She’s also got fantastic stage presence, as you immediately are drawn in by her performance. I knew this before even going to the show, but it only reaffirmed for me seeing Cotten live: Eric Church’s music wouldn’t be as good without her presence. She is the Bernie Taupin to Church’s Elton John.

“Cold One” is next and the funky, bouncy melody had all of us…well bouncing along with it! It’s just such a fun song and shows off Church’s quirkier songwriting side. Cotten shines again on “Heart on Fire” and both her and Church are absolute charisma volcanoes at this moment. Needless to say I’m pretty much matching their energy at this point. I’m just hooked to every aspect of this concert performance, singing along at the top of my lungs to everything and moving around, screaming at the end of each song. It can’t get better than this! Then Church decides to slow it down and plays “Mr. Misunderstood.” So now I’m just completely mesmerized, as one of my all-time favorite songs from him plays. It’s because I connect so deeply with the lyrics because at one point I was that kid in the back of the class with nerdy tendencies who’s interest weren’t considered cool. And I love the soft, defiant heartfelt nature of the beginning of the song that descends into a frenetic, out of control display of infectious passion at the end. I don’t think there’s a song for me that better displays an overwhelming love and passion towards something, but especially music, like this one.

I think I tried losing my voice when I was singing along with “Break It Kind of Guy,” as I’m sucker for this type of country soul. Cotten of course plays to this song perfectly with her style and Church himself is better than you think when he goes for those big high notes. After singing my heart out I’m glad Church slows it down for the next few songs, as I imagine I’m not the only one needing a breather. Church himself though is outdoing us all, as he would constantly move around throughout the whole show with unceasing end. His stamina and unrelenting drive absolutely blew me away. It reminded me of a moment on his first live album where he says he’s going to give the audience everything he’s got, but we gotta give it back too (I’m pretty sure he says this at one point during this show too). And we’re trying! But it’s hard to keep up with such a spitfire of a performer! You have a lot of fun trying to keep up though.

I have to admit I was really shocked when the crowd lost their shit with “Round Here Buzz,” as I didn’t think this would be such a crowd pleaser. But everybody was singing along to every single word of it. “How ‘bout You” did not surprise me with how much it fired up the crowd though, as pretty much every Church fan knows this one. While I wouldn’t put it among my top ten from him, damn is it catchy. Hearing those pounding drums pulsate throughout, grabbing hold of you and refusing to let go, makes this song so ideal for the live setting. It feels like Church’s band really got to show off on this song, as they’re quite impressive themselves. Their playing is constantly on point, they’re constantly matching the energy of Church and Cotten, interacting frequently with the crowd; you couldn’t ask for more from them.

“Smoke a Little Smoke” follows this and this song always brings a little grin to my face when I hear it. Not because it’s a song about smoking weed, but it’s the song that made me first take notice of Church. It’s funny how some of my absolute favorite artists at first made me feel unsure of what to make of them. Amongst the artists I had this reaction with were Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and Eric Church. I remember the first time I heard “Smoke a Little Smoke” on the radio. I really wasn’t sure what to think. I just thought to myself that this was so different than what I’m used to hearing. Then I would hear it more and I slowly would gravitate towards it and hope this song would play when I tuned into a country station. It often filled my Pontiac Grand-Am as I made my trips to and from class in high school. Ain’t it funny how a melody sounds like a memory?

Now “These Boots” I know has been one of the crowd favorites for several years at Church shows. But I don’t think I was prepared for the sight of thousands of people holding a boot in the air. I’m not sure I’ll see this sight again either. Well no actually I will because I know I’m going to another Church show someday. Also during this song Church took the time to sign several of these boots and again I was surprised at the amount of love Church shown the fans. Now I’m not surprised from the perspective of Church himself, since he’s always put the fans first, from giving Mr. Misunderstood to them before anybody else to the wars he’s waged against ticket scalpers. I’m surprised from the perspective of expectations for such a big star and headlining act. Most of them don’t do these types of things at concerts and you don’t expect this from stars. Most star artists make you pay for a meet and greet to get an autograph. But I guess Church is no ordinary star.

The unordinary nature of Church and his live shows is further showcased as he wraps up the first set with “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones.” The first set. That was just the first set! Most artists would have declared this enough for a headlining act and that would have been the end of the concert. But all of that and it was just the first half. I don’t know of any other artists who do concerts like this, but I wish more had this same attitude as Church. Granted there are no openers for Church of course. It’s been like that now for years at his concerts. Sturgill Simpson and Marty Stuart & his Fabulous Superlatives are the only other acts I’ve seen go without an opener and they put on incredible shows too.

I elect to stay right where I’m at during this break and stretch my legs and arms. I had found a good spot, so why leave, especially when everybody is out in the concourse? And I had decided I’m waiting until after the show to hit the merch stand, as I didn’t want to hold stuff while in a crowded pit. This also gave me time to chat with the guy next to me (no, not the beer spiller from earlier), as we both discussed how much we loved this show. It was his first time at an Eric Church concert too. We got to talking about music and what we did for a living and it’s always interesting to learn about others. He said his favorite show he had ever seen was Garth Brooks. It’s not a surprising answer, as Garth has been hailed by so many as a fantastic live performer. He asked me what my favorite concert I’ve ever seen and I can never pick one. It’s always like five different ones. I’ve seen a lot of great shows thankfully. Perhaps I’m just overwhelmed by the amount of choices, I guess? As the countdown clock to set two winds down and before we end our conversation, I ask him about the blanket around his neck and he says he hopes to have Church touch it at some point. I wished him luck and hoped he would get his wish. Unfortunately he wouldn’t as I later saw him retreat from towards the front of the guardrails with a disappointed look on his face. Maybe, next time. But I’m focused on the second set, as most of the people have filed back in at this point and the countdown clock has hit zero. Right on cue, Church and his band (clad in new attire) come back out through the crowd to play us some more songs.

Church opens the second set with two songs I absolutely love from Heart: “Heart of the Night” and “Russian Roulette.” The rock opera-like nature of the former always gets my heart pumping. And the latter song is one of Church’s finest heartbreak songs, as it has that same appeal that “Record Year” has of using music as heartbreak medicine. I like how Church emulates the blasts from the radio speakers when he sings, “Gettin’ shot through the speakers both left and right in stereo” too, as that’s my reaction when I hear it. The “money shot” of the song of course is the bridge where it slows down and Church softly croons “I need a melody without a memory, take me where I’ve never been,” followed by the crashing of the drums and guitar and the song thrillingly building to it’s conclusion. I couldn’t ask for more in the melody department. What made this song performance even better was Church was front and center for me during it.

The high energy just continues to ramble along with “Drink in My Hand,” “Talladega” and “Chattanooga Lucy.” The biggest reaction from the crowd all night was to “Talladega,” as they gleefully waved their checkered flags and loudly sang along to it. I enjoy the song too, but I always found it to be a slightly less good version of “Springsteen.” Maybe it’s the NASCAR imagery that further enhances it in several listeners’ minds? I was pleasantly surprised to hear “Chattanooga Lucy,” as I think it’s an absolute blast of a song that’s impossible not to want to move along with. In fact after looking on setlist.fm, I was even more surprised to see Mr. Misunderstood get the most songs on the set list from a single album. Not that I’m complaining of course because it’s his best album. A few songs later he plays a few more off the album in “Mistress Named Music,” “Knives of New Orleans” and “Mixed Drinks About Feelings.” You can’t go wrong with any of these songs. I love the raw, soulfulness of “Mistress Named Music.” Cotten absolutely kills Susan Tedeschi’s part in “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” and appropriately got loud applauses for it. And then you have “Knives of New Orleans,” which is a top five Church song for me. I’m once again thankful for my great luck, as Church plays this song directly in front of me. The passion of the brilliant lyrics shines through just as well live as they do on the record. It just can’t get better than this!

I did not expect to enjoy “Creepin’” so much in a live setting. I’ve always found it to be a fun song, but it’s not one of the first songs I reach for when it comes to Church. But man does it rip in concert and after hearing it in this setting I have another level of appreciation for it. It was yet another moment where Church worked the crowd up into an absolute flurry of excitement. We were then treated to the live debut of “Look Good and You Know It,” which I was thrilled to hear with it being one of my favorites on Soul. I hope Church continues to do more songs in this vein, as I think he has the chops to pull them off quite well with the swaggering charisma he can display. And that was well on display here.

Church next dips into back-to-back songs from The Outsiders in “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” Now if you’ve been really following me for a while, you know I heavily criticized this album when it first released. But then I started to warm up to a few songs, but still for years never went back to give it a fair revisit. Well after hearing these two songs live and seeing this concert, it made me go back and give it a fair revisit. I’ve done a complete 180 on it and I think it’s amongst Church’s best. But I’ll maybe expand upon this more in another post. For now I’ll focus on these two songs. With the first song, I got hung up on the Pizza Hut line being a bit odd and overlooked the song’s important message about gentrification and losing what makes something special. And the latter song I’ve actually really enjoyed for a few years now. Dare I say it’s one of the most overlooked songs in Church’s discography, as I love the spoken word that sets it up and the interplay between Church and Cotten on vocals brings out the absolute best in them. All of us got treated this especially in this performance, as they went toe to toe on the mic, with Cotten of course winning because there are very few in country music with a powerful enough voice to challenge her.

The show closes on a quite powerful three song run, starting with Church’s biggest hit, “Springsteen.” There’s a reason this song is on a lot of the best modern country songs lists. Nostalgia is a theme well covered in country music, but most of the songs in this vein fail to give it the proper depth it can convey. But “Springsteen” is able to capture this magical feeling through a perfect combination of first descriptive lyrics, the kind one thinks of when indulging in nostalgia, but not too specific to where people aren’t able to connect. Its breezy and accessible, yet can connect on a deeper level. And then there’s the other half of the combo, which is the sweet yet melancholy melody largely invoked by the soft keys of the piano that mainly flutter in the chorus. Hearing such a special song like this live, it’s impossible to describe the butterflies that come up in your stomach. Church also took time in bridge of the song to spend some time talking to the crowd, which I realized afterwards was quite similar to the speech he gave during “Springsteen” on his first live record. But that doesn’t mean this rehearsed speech didn’t still resonate with us in the crowd. Melodies do get connected with memories and we did make a memory with the melodies we heard that night.

“Record Year” was next and I remember hoping like crazy when this song was released that it would somehow be a hit. It deserved to be a hit, yet I was so skeptical it would ever take off. And then it became Church’s second biggest hit. I was never happier to be proven wrong. I’ve mentioned most of my top five Church songs throughout this post and they all take turns being my favorite, depending on when you ask me. But this is most often my #1. The overcoming heartbreak arch, indulging in spinning vinyl records, the jaunty melody, the easy to sing along with lyrics, references to great albums and artists; this song checks off every box of things I enjoy in a song from Eric Church or really any song. But I have a new memory I’ll think of when I hear this song thanks to seeing Church perform it live. During the bridge, Church takes to the audience to sign and point out the record art people are holding up throughout the audience. And he stops at one point to spend a bit more time with a fan who happens to be holding up Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. That’s when you see the inner music nerd in Church pop right out, as a smile breaks across his face and he starts reading the notes on the back of it. For a brief second it seemed like he was going to stand there and read all of the stuff on the back of the album, only to immediately realize, “Oh yeah I’m in the middle of performing in front of 19,000 people. I better sign this and move along.” From one music nerd to another, I would have totally been cool if Church decided to just spend some time reading the rest of it. But it’s a little moment that will always stick with me.

The closing song is surprisingly “Holdin’ My Own.” I suppose it was an appropriate goodbye song to the audience, as it allowed me to reflect on the show I had just seen. Although there was also a part of me that thought this show might keep going somehow, even though it was well beyond the length I thought it would be. This though was the final song, as Church played himself and his band out to conclude the night.

I’ve never been so exhausted in every way after seeing a concert. But in the best way possible, if that makes sense! And I never saw the scene I did leaving a show either. As we were making our way up the stairs from the floor, water is pouring down from the ceiling. What the hell is going on? We make our way up further and there’s even more water pouring down from the ceiling upstairs. It’s as if a rainstorm had invaded the arena. In reality, so many drunks had hit the bathrooms that they overloaded the pipes. But my story is Eric Church rocked Nationwide Arena so hard that night that he made it rain. One thing that is quite certain: after seeing Eric Church live, I can say with the utmost confidence that he is one of the greatest artists and live performers of the modern generation in not just country music, but across all music.

I was still exhausted when I woke up the next day. A concert had never kicked my ass like this one did. Over the next few days I excitedly told my friends and family about the experience. And it made me reflect even more on the experience. When one of my friends asked me about it again, I casually said it was the best concert I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it at first, but I knew it was true. I now have an all-time favorite concert I can point to. The best concert I’ve ever seen was Eric Church on September 18, 2021 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Thoughts & Notes on Willie Nelson, the Osborne Brothers & Bob Wills’ records

As promised, my thoughts on the haul of records I discussed in my previous post. Time to spin some records and give you my thoughts on them…

Willie Nelson’s Stardust

  • I liken this album to a warm blanket, as you can put it on anytime and it’s instantly comforting
  • Willie just glides effortlessly over the melodies
  • While Willie is rightfully known for being one of the all time great songwriters, this album shows he’s an equally great interpreter
  • In addition, this album shows his excellence when it comes to adapting to various styles of music
  • The opening title track tells you right up front what to expect with this album, soft and gentle music unlike any of his outlaw stuff that made him famous in the previous few years
  • The tender weariness of Willie’s vocals combined with the understated soulful production from Booker T. Jones on “Georgia On My Mind” makes one feel full when listening to it
  • The harmonica solo in the bridge is a great touch, as some country creeps through in this jazzy song
  • Then again I guess harmonica isn’t something exclusive to country music. But Mickey Raphael on harmonica on a Willie song is
  • Who doesn’t know “All of Me”? And even if you don’t, I feel like it’s one of those songs you can instantly sing along with. Made famous by Willie’s friend and music legend Frank Sinatra, this song just fits Willie like a glove.
  • It fits him so well for the same reason it fit Sinatra so well: they effortlessly convey emotion behind the lyrics. There’s a passion behind the delivery that makes you care. Again it comes back to the interpreting ability of Willie. Sure you could get somebody who’s a really polished, technically sound vocalist sing this. But it wouldn’t have near the charm and appeal that a vocalist like Willie brings to it.
  • The same can be said of Willie’s interpretation of “Unchained Melody,” a song that has been done countless times across every genre and a song firmly entrenched in American culture. I mean is it a surprise a song about pining for love fits Willie well? He brings that achiness needed to make the song connect with the listener
  • I love the lingering piano that greets you in “September Song” and then drifts in the background throughout. It makes you feel like you’re taking a walk through the woods on a crisp fall afternoon in…well September.
  • Trigger of course sounds great as always in the bridge with a well placed solo to complement the carefree melody of the song
  • Just like “All of Me,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is one of those instantly likable songs to me. There’s a reason it became a jazz standard and covered by every big name of that genre. And Willie’s cover is certainly worthy of being right next to the best of the jazz interpretations of the song.
  • You would think I would have more to say on an album I hold to such high esteem, but the funny thing I’ve learned listening to hundreds of albums is sometimes you don’t have a lot of words to say about an album you enjoy other than a succinct, “I just like it.” Stardust is one of those albums that is better left for you to listen to and hear for yourself rather than someone else describing it to you. If you think would enjoy a country/jazz/pop fusion or if you love Willie Nelson, you’ll love this album too

Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind

  • I had no clue that “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was originally recorded by Aretha Franklin
  • Willie obviously has a much different take, but very much makes it his own by making more of a country pop waltz
  • By the way you can tell right away that this is an 80s album, with what I call the “dramatic” production that permeates every genre of music in this time
  • Another thing I learned: Originally producers Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons suggested to both Nelson and Merle Haggard to record the song for their collaboration album Pancho & Lefty. But Merle turned it down! Willie says he never heard it right according to his autobiography, but he was impressed by it the moment he heard it. It goes to show even legends can sometimes miss on “getting” music
  • To me this song is absolutely gorgeous and Willie’s version is by far my favorite of all the versions of it recorded. It’s one of the first songs I think of when I think of Willie Nelson. From the soft and smooth piano strokes that open to the tenderness of Nelson’s delivery, it’s one of those songs that gives you goose bumps. It’s a love song with true emotion that resonates with anyone who listens closely
  • I completely forgot there was a hidden Waylon feature on “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” so I popped up from my seat when listening to this vinyl record for the first time
  • The lyrics to this song are so different, especially for Willie and Waylon. But they absolutely nail what was originally a baroque pop song. They’re rightfully known as the kings of outlaw country, but their talent made them capable of taking on any genre they set their minds to. That’s just brilliant artists for you
  • Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one of those American classics you can’t avoid, especially since Simon feels like your favorite songwriter’s songwriter
  • With Willie’s version, I like the subdued production choice here by Chips Moman and letting Willie’s voice be front and center. When he hits those upper notes it stands out even more
  • “Old Fords and a Natural Stone” is one of those simple songs that Nelson knocks out in his sleep. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but enjoyable nonetheless. I also enjoy the saxophones that pop up in the background throughout. Again I’m a sucker for 80s production and over Willie singing it’s just even better
  • So the song I mentioned before that’s my favorite on the album (and that’s saying something with multiple great songs on it)
  • “Permanently Lonely” is the definition of confident bitterness. Oh I’ll be alright from his breakup, but you won’t because you’re always going to be lonely. And in light of a breakup, I think it’s perfectly natural to feel this way
  • But of course it’s not just bitterness being displayed here, but it’s also a coping mechanism. It’s easier to get over a breakup when you tell yourself that your ex is going to be lonely forever
  • Chris Stapleton did a good job with his cover of Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar’s “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning.” But Willie’s version is the definitive version for me
  • Willie’s version is much better than Stapleton’s because of the vocal deliveries of each. It goes back to what I said in my thoughts on Stardust above: Willie brings a weary charm that fits a heartbreaking song like this, whereas Stapleton’s voice, while powerful and amazing, is too much for a song like this (Stapleton does heartbreak best on a song like “Either Way”)
  • Trigger’s solo to play out this song is mesmerizing and really puts an exclamation point on this great song
  • It just makes sense to end an album with a song called “The Party’s Over”
  • That phrase also just works in a song about a relationship ending. Hell I even think I ended a relationship saying the exact phrase. But again another great piece of writing from Willie
  • Funny how this album basically happened because Willie wanted to record the title track. If Merle had said yes, maybe this album doesn’t happen. All I know is I’m glad it did, as it’s quite enjoyable and ranks as one of my favorites in Willie’s discography

Willie Nelson’s City of New Orleans

  • Remember how I said above that there are some albums that can be just summed up as “I just like it”? Well that’s pretty much the case here
  • The title track is a fun song about a train ride to New Orleans that Willie covers with a powerful delivery backed by some catchy production
  • Willie’s cover of “She’s Out of My Life” rivals the most popular version of it by Michael Jackson in my opinion. And I love the Jackson version
  • What makes the Jackson version really stand out of course is it’s so different than the rest of the songs on Off the Wall, an album full of upbeat disco songs. So the song itself is an emotional gut punch and it punches even harder next to these type of songs
  • By the way, Off the Wall is on my all time favorite albums list, so I couldn’t recommend it more. I actually think it’s better than Thriller
  • I find it hard to believe Bette Midler’s version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” is the most popular version of this song. Because in the words of a former doctor of mine, “Bette Midler is awful.”
  • So give me the Willie version this song! It’s a beautiful song that suits his voice perfectly. Have you gotten sick of me saying this yet in this post? That’s what happens when you decide to write about three Willie albums that are largely covers.
  • City of New Orleans is a solid album and follow-up to the same idea Willie followed on Always on My Mind. Unfortunately this album doesn’t quite hit the highs of that album, but this is still a good showing

Osborne Brothers’ Cuttin’ Grass Osborne Brothers Style

  • As soon as I heard the sweet sounds of Bob Osborne’s mandolin playing in “Sweet Thing,” I had a feeling I would really enjoy this album
  • What a great opening song! And the female vocalist is fantastic! Unfortunately it does not list on the back of the album or anywhere on it who this woman is. And my Google searching did not turn up anything definitive either. It could possibly be Felice Bryant? I’m not sure, so if anyone reading this could help me here I would greatly appreciate your help in identifying the vocalist
  • Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuby!
  • That’s one way to open a song! Also I immediately recognized “Ruby, Are You Mad”! I know I’ve heard it, granted a really, really long time, likely from my dad or grandpa when showing me bluegrass at a very young age. My memory is great, but it’s not strong enough to remember exactly when
  • While the picking on this song is quite entertaining, the pipes on the female vocalist impress me even more. I’m out of breath just listening!
  • The harmonizing at the end is awesome, a really nice bow on a great song
  • “May You Never Be Alone” is so mournful and sad, but also quite beautiful. The picking in the bridge lights up your soul, both the banjo picking from Sonny and mandolin picking from Bob. These brothers damn sure know how to make a compelling melody!
  • It’s a Hank song, you know actual Hank, not his drunk son. So of course the song is well written.
  • I didn’t even watch the show and I immediately recognized “Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Beverly Hillbillies is of course right up there with the Dukes of Hazzard, Hee Haw and The Andy Griffith Show as the most influential and influential shows in country and bluegrass history
  • “Sour Wood Mountain” is where the brothers really show off their picking; it’s no surprise as they wrote this one themselves. The banjo really shines on this one
  • Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On” I thought I had never heard, yet I knew I was enjoying this too much and knew the lyrics too quickly for this to be true. Sure enough I realized I heard this first on Dwight Yoakam’s Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. And it’s been covered by several in country music.
  • I’m not surprised because man, this is an enjoyable heartbreak song.
  • Once again the harmonizing is right on point and really gives the song some heft
  • It’s definitely amusing to hear about how bluegrass is the in and hip thing on Earnest Tubb’s “Bluegrass Music’s Really Gone to Town.” Because other than a brief period in the early 2000s, this has never been the case in my lifetime. Then again this album was released in 1963
  • “Night Train to Memphis” is really catchy and the gospel influences on this are really enjoyable. Of course I think every song on this album is catchy and enjoyable
  • Well “New Partner Waltz” just lays it right out there: a couple both notice the other looking over each others’ shoulders during the waltz and concluding they’ll each have a new partner when the next song begins. Yet he seems to think they’ll be alone after this dance? Maybe I’m reading too much into what’s just a simple heartbreak song
  • “White Lightning” is a song that holds such importance in the history of country and bluegrass: it pays homage to the influence of moonshining, it was the first hit for George Jones and it’s a go-to example of how the genres utilized humor in it’s earlier days to win audiences over
  • I mean how can you not chuckle and smile with the funny lyrics and reactions of the characters throughout to taking a sip of white lightning
  • I will say I’ve never had a chance to take a sip of white lightning myself, but based on what I’ve heard it sounds like it would knock me on my ass
  • While I’ve heard my share of bluegrass albums that sound repetitive and really hearing these types of bluegrass album is what kept me away from further exploring the genre, this album is certainly not repetitive. In fact, I’m dying to hear more of it
  • I shit you not the first time I played this record I immediately had to play it a few more times because I was thrilled by what I was hearing
  • The melodies on this are fantastic and captivating, the vocals are very impressive and Cuttin’ Grass Osborne Brothers Style is definitely my type of bluegrass
  • Needless to say I’ll continue to search for more of this type of bluegrass

Bob Wills’ Fiddle

  • Well it’s an all instrumental, fiddle-laden album. While the music nerd in me enjoys this, it honestly doesn’t make for interesting writing in my opinion, unless you yourself are an expert fiddle player who can break down all the details they could pick up listening to Bob Wills. And even then I would probably skim their writings. 
  • All in all though I’ll leave you with this: If you thought Tyler Childers’ Long Violent History was pretty neat like I did, then you need to check out Bob Wills.
  • While Childers’ project was great from an artistic standpoint, from a technical standpoint it wasn’t anywhere near what you get with Wills. There’s a reason he’s one of the all time great fiddle players and what I love about this album is how it shows his progression. The album begins with some of his earliest recordings in the 1930s, which are simpler in nature songs and the album progresses up until the end in the mid 40s, where you can hear the complexities and learnings he’s accumulated over the years to good use. The back of the album makes for fantastic reading as you listen because it explains all of this and how Wills was shaped by various influences. Particularly fascinating to me is his love of many genres, including blues, Spanish music, dance music and most interestingly, jazz! I would have never thought this, but then you listen and you can’t unhear it.
  • He actually worked with several jazz fiddlers, which I didn’t know was a thing. It’s not really what I think of with jazz (and they usually call it a violin I thought). It’s really a good reminder of how much of a melting pot music is and how integral each genre truly is, as one may not exist without the other. 
  • Wow! I actually did have something to write! I guess disregard the beginning of this section. And man what a fun haul of music! 

A Trip to the Record Store

One of my favorite hobbies is going to the record store. Especially after a stressful week, it was exactly what I needed. And the thing is there was absolutely nothing I had in my mind in particular I was looking for on my trip. Of course I have my list of records I’m on the hunt for to add to my collection, but I went on this trip with no expectations other than to browse and have fun.

And of course not overpay for a record. Like many, I appreciate a good deal when it comes to buying anything. Who doesn’t want a good deal? Whether I’m checking out deals online or in a record store, if I can snag it for a good price, I’m going to be even more thrilled with my buy. Lately this feels like it’s become even more important in the hobby of collecting records. The prices of records have been absolutely ballooning, with no signs of slowing down. Record sales have been steadily climbing for a decade, but it got even bigger in the midst of this pandemic we’re in, as people have embraced new hobbies, one of them being collecting records. The pandemic has also played a major factor in another aspect of vinyl: the pressing of them, or rather the shortage due to increased demand and the mess COVID-19 has created in shipping and manufacturing. Highly sought after records and limited variants can be hard to find nowadays in some cases. It doesn’t help that a lot of people give into the FOMO or worse, paying outrageous reseller prices on Discogs and EBay.

All of this has become especially egregious in hip hop. Out of all the genres, it attracts the most hype beasts. It’s not surprising when a lot of music in it glorifies materialism and having the best/most stuff. Hip hop is also a major part of popular culture and fashion and something that is constant through human history is obsession with popularity. It doesn’t effect my enjoyment of the genre in the least, but it’s certainly affected my record collecting habits. I refuse to pay $40 for the new J. Cole album, even though The Off-Season is a great record. Cole raps his ass off on it and the features are all impressive. But I’ll gladly wait on it to drop in price.

So I made my way to the record store and there was a lot of people, which surprised me, but in a good way. It’s a great sight to see so many people getting into this fun hobby. Anyone who loves music I highly encourage getting into collecting records (CDs or cassettes if that’s more your speed too). Of course with more people buying records it means I have a harder time finding the ones I want. But that’s not a big deal. I was especially happy to see though that the store had expanded, so I had even more records to browse. I knew I was about to spend a couple hours digging (I did).

The first section I head for is the country and bluegrass section: one because I love the genres of course and two because there weren’t any people in that section. I’m not surprised it’s empty, as so many people unnecessarily thumb their noses down upon country music, especially in the city I’ve come to realize. Oh sure I’ve found some people who appreciate it. But most in the city either don’t care for it or they just like the stuff on the radio. But it also means I should find some great records. So I began to dig.

Right away I notice a lot of the records are brand new records, which means high prices. And oh sure there’s some that are on my list I want to get, but the price is too damn high. For example, I come across Miranda Lambert’s The Marfa Tapes. I really enjoy this album, as it’s what I would describe as a fun campfire record. The stripped down nature and the “flaws” of the recordings of the songs make it an enjoyable listen. However, I don’t like it enough to pay $32 for it. I have to really love an album to pay that price for a record. I don’t really love this album, so I will wait until I can grab it at a better price. And hey I know this has become the standard price, but I don’t have to like it.

The rest of the albums in the section are the higher priced used albums they have, I’m talking $20 or more. I normally don’t like to pay that for used records, unless it’s something I absolutely love and it’s in excellent shape. There a few records priced in the range I usually like to buy used ones in. One that catches my eye is Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack. I’m familiar with multiple songs on the album (“On The Road Again,” “Whiskey River”, etc.), but I’ve never listened to the whole album. Usually I like to listen to the whole album, but in this case it was more of this record isn’t amongst the Willie Nelson albums I’m looking for. I put it back and kept it in the back of my head as a possible maybe to return to later as I continued to look.

I finished my way through the section of country and bluegrass records sitting on the tables and I was surprised by the lack of variety and so many new records populating the section. I walked over to the jazz section next to it, poking around, only to find it was very much the same case. This made no sense to me, until I figured out I wasn’t looking hard enough. I noticed below the tables of country and bluegrass records I just pilfered through to see several crates and boxes marked “country overflow.” I start to dig in this group of records and this was more of what I was looking for. I spend twice as much time digging through these, despite having to bend down on the ground and block aisles than I did with the top shelf selections. Sure, it’s awkward having to move out of the way for people trying to make their way around. But this is a record store and anybody who has ever dug for records knows record stores aren’t exactly Ikea when it comes to organization and efficient aisle ways. It’s the just the way it is.

This is the part where the digging pays off. Remember earlier I said there were certain Willie Nelson records I was looking for? Well I find the first of the day that I hold onto without hesitation: Willie’s Always On My Mind. The Chips Moman produced album of course is highlighted by Willie’s take on the title track. The album mostly consists of covers, but I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed Willie’s interpretations of others’ songs because many times he can equal or surpass them. My favorite of this album though is him covering one of his own songs from a previous album, “Permanently Lonely.” It’s a pointed, subtle as a brick to the face breakup song that perfectly encapsulates the fallout anger of a relationship. It’s a song that to me shows why Willie is one of the all time great singer-songwriters.

My next two finds are unconventional and surprising; the latter because I have never listened to these albums before. It’s not something I do a lot when record picking, but when I’m feeling adventurous I like to buy records of albums I’ve never heard. When you have a big selection at your disposal like this one, it’s fun to take risks and buy records that are sort of a mystery. The first is a Bob Wills fiddle instrumental compilation album released in the late 80s. Of course I’ve heard many of Wills’ songs, but an all instrumental album with many songs I’ve never heard from him really caught my eye. The second is the Osborne Brothers’ Cuttin’ Grass Osborne Brothers Style. Now bluegrass is a genre I started dipping my toes into more after Sturgill Simpson released his Cuttin’ Grass albums. But with me always having a wandering ear, I kind of sidetracked and lost sight of my exploration into the genre. But with so many bluegrass records at my selection in this mess of records in front of me, I thought picking one to take home with me would be a good way to kick start my exploration of it once again. My final pickup in this section is yet another Chips Moman-produced Willie album: City of New Orleans. While it’s not quite as good of a fun covers album as Always On My Mind, it’s still a really enjoyable album that feels like a successful follow-up on the former’s formula. And well…can you really go wrong with Willie?

After having quite a fill of the country and bluegrass section, I set off next for the rock and pop sections. Like when I first went into the country section, I start off by looking through the top shelf records, where just like before I just find a bunch of records that are too highly priced and/or not what I’m looking for. I repeat this process with the hip hop section. This section is without a doubt the most picked over I’ve looked through. It’s also the most overpriced. No surprise, as I mentioned before when discussing hip hop. But I was more inclined to buy a new hip hop record versus any other genre if it was something hard to find or out of stock online. For example, Griselda records were something I was definitely inclined to buy. Griselda of course refers to the trio of Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn (and there are other great artists on the label too, but these three are the faces). But after much searching, I couldn’t find anything. The same search for Freddie Gibbs records turned out the same, although for a hot minute I thought I found something. It was a single of his song “Playa” with various remixes on the record. I had never heard or seen this before, so for a second I thought I found something rare. And I was also surprised I didn’t know of this because I had spent a lot of time digging through Gibbs’ discography after he won me over immediately with Pinata and Freddie. The latter is an album I still regret not buying on vinyl when I had the chance, so it along with You Only Live 2wice remain on my wanted list. But a quick Discogs search showed this “Playa” record was quite common. Not to mention I reminded myself that I don’t and buy play singles very often and playing the same song over and over just doesn’t make for a good listening experience. So I put it back in hopes of finding something else to take it’s place.

Now I turn my attention back to the overflow, bottom sections in rock and pop. And man there’s a lot more to dig through! But at this point after being here for a couple hours, my patience for digging is running thinner. Plus, I’ve already landed four records from the country section and I didn’t want to spend a ton today. One album in particular though I’m looking for is Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue. For fellow seasoned collectors, yes I know this album is incredibly common and it’s ridiculous I don’t have it. Chalk it up to bad luck I guess! But I’ve never come across it before. And today was no different. I do however pick up two records that I give strong consideration to: The Doobie Brothers’ first greatest hits album (you know the one with the jukebox on the front) and the Carpenters’ Christmas album. I ultimately though decide against both of them after 10 minutes of wavering. I decide against the Doobie record because I realize I already have their second greatest hits album and I don’t even listen to it a bunch, so why get the one that is my less favorite of the two? And I decide against the Carpenters’ record because despite my love of the duo, it’s just really hard to buy a Christmas album when it’s 90 degrees outside. I also waffle on my thoughts on collecting Christmas albums. On one hand, they’re great to play around the holidays. Nothing beats the cozy feeling of sitting on the couch listening to a record with the Christmas tree glowing and snow pouring down outside. On the other hand, they sit on a shelf for 10.5 months the rest of the year. So it makes sense to be more picky and selective with them.

But it’s funny how one small moment of hesitation led to my final find of the day. While I’m walking around the store stalling and mulling over getting these records, a line forms at the front. After my mulling it’s still there. And it’s quite cramped up front near the register. I really don’t want to be close to people if I don’t have to, especially with the Delta variant in full swing. So to kill some time I look around more and find a section of newly arrived used albums. How did I not see this before? Might as well look through them, you never know…less than 10 records into my flipping through them, I hit the jackpot! I find staring back at me a record that’s been on my list for quite some time. It’s one of my all time favorite albums: Willie Nelson’s Stardust! The cover is in perfect condition and it’s even a promotional copy, which means it’s not been played much either. The record is scratch free. I grabbed it without hesitation.

The line disappeared and happy with what I have in hand, I paid for my records and I set off home with my haul for the day.

Don’t worry I’ll get to the music on these records next time…