Americana No Borders
Twang Bangin' Happy Hour
The Bottle Rockets
On Friday, September 20th, The Groove welcomes Lone Star Music‘s “No Borders!” party – featuring live performances from Mike Stinson, Amanda Shires, The Bottle Rockets and special guests! There will also be free Lone Star beer and Deep Eddy cocktails (for those of age), plus great food from Mas Tacos, a Yamaha Guitar “Petting Zoo” and more!!
Lubbock TX | Rock
"Let's not give away what all the songs are about," requests Amanda Shires via email - shortly after an hour-long interview discussing exactly that. "I think I prefer for the listener to decide for themselves what stuff means, because I always hate it when I think a song is about a horse, and then it turns out to be a damn trip to France ..."
And so, by artist request, there will be no handy track-by-track cheat sheet for Shires' new Carrying Lightning. But if you really can't deduce what the songs are all about on your own, then consider yourself equally blessed and cursed, because odds are you've never been knocked on your ass by the wrecking ball of human desire - the kind so lovingly bottled by the young Texas songwriter in the album-opening "Swimmer, Dreams Don't Keep":
"April was the last time I think I saw you
You were carrying lightning
The way you walked into the room,
If I was a flower I would've opened up and bloomed
I say I don't care, but I'm a liar
Look how easy a heart can catch on fire..."
That same charge of romantic/erotic tension courses throughout the entire album, which sways from innocent daydream ("Swimmer") to restless longing ("Love Be a Bird") to explosive lust ("Shake the Walls") to blissful contentment ("Sloe Gin") and, finally, back to wistful fantasy ("Lovesick I Remain"). The specific, behind-the-scenes details - such as who or what inspired each particular song, or to what extent each stems from Shires' own life vs. her sheer imagination - need not be divulged or even probed, because, as the mysterious little messenger in "Ghost Bird," "all feathers and a heartbeat," puts it best, "Baby, we're all running from the same things: broken hearts, broken homes, the tired and the loneliness ..."
"I guess the theme of the record as a whole is just, 'get wrecked in love - and be loved," says Shires. "Or, to steal a quote from Sylvia Plath: 'Wear your heart on your skin in this life.' That's my platform."
The quote may be borrowed, and the emotional terrain of the songs universally relatable, but Shires' voice is distinctly her own. Her Texas twang and fetching vibrato ("less goat, more note!" she teases herself with a laugh) can dance playfully around a melody or haunt a line like a mournful ghost, and she deftly employs her fiddle/violin, ukulele and even whistling skills to similar effect. The resulting sound is a beautiful but woozily surrealistic swoon - as well befits an artist who cites Leonard Cohen and alt-country dark horse Richard Buckner as two of her biggest musical influences. Or, as a review in Americana UK once observed: "At times, her energetic, jittery vocals and eccentric lyrical subjects mark her out as a young female heir to the godfather of strange, Tom Waits. In her more conventional moments, Shires sounds like the weird young niece of Dolly Parton."
In fact, Shires is just a down-to-earth, self-effacing West Texas gal currently residing in Nashville, working her tail off trying to find her niche in the music industry as an independent artist. In the recent Hollywood movie Country Strong, she played the fiddle player in the band backing Gwyneth Paltrow's fictional country superstar. In real life, Shires runs with a decidedly more left-of-mainstream-type crowd, including Jason Isbell (she sings and plays fiddle on the former Drive-By Trucker's latest, Here We Rest) and Justin Townes Earle (she's the lovely model gracing the cover of his 2008 debut, The Good Life). She also maintains strong ties to the Lone Star State, recording and occasionally performing with the Lubbock band Thrift Store Cowboys (which she joined while still in college) and sometimes even teaching fiddle at Texas Playboys' singer Tommy Allsup's summer music camp. She was only 15 the first time she played onstage with the Playboys (the Western swing band made famous by the late Bob Wills) - a mere five years after she coerced her father into buying her first fiddle, a lime-green Chinese instrument from a pawn shop in dusty downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.
In 2005, while still a regular member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires released her solo debut, a mostly instrumental showcase for her traditional fiddle chops called Being Brave. But the fertile Texas music scene was overripe with side-person work for the talented young player and backup singer - so much so that Shires feared sliding into a complacency that, left unchecked, threatened to stunt her growth as a songwriter. So she relocated to Nashville - "to get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts," as she put it once - and dived headlong into the process of writing and recording the first two albums to really put her on the roots-music map: 2008's Sew Your Heart with Wires, a collection of duets co-written and recorded with singer-songwriter Rod Picott; and what Shires calls her "true" solo debut, 2009's West Cross Timbers. Both were met with enthusiastic reviews and radio support, with the former being voted the fourth best debut album of 2008 by FAR (Freeform American Roots) Chart reporters and the later reaching No. 21 on the Americana Music Association Chart. The Gibson Guitar company featured Shires on their website as one of 2009's breakout artists, and No Depression called West Cross Timbers one of the 50 best releases of the year.
Shires was eager to get right back into the studio, but a busy touring schedule - averaging 120-160 dates a year, including at least one or two annual trips to Europe - necessitated that the follow-up to West Cross Timbers, be recorded piecemeal. "We did it over the course of 16 months in multiple sessions, just coming back and forth home to Nashville between tours," she says of Carrying Lightning, which she co-produced with Picott and David Henry at Henry's True Tone Studios. Fortunately, although it was hard to find time to lay down tracks, writer's block was never an issue for her.
"Some people only write when they're at home, but I just write, whenever or however I can," Shires says. "We ended up recording 20-something songs for the album, and the hardest part was trying to decide which ones to use. But having the whole process take so long is what ultimately helped give the record its shape and focus. I was really able to think about which songs fit together the best, as opposed to just, 'I'm going into the studio to make a record, and in two weeks I'll be done.' I had a lot of time to sleep on this one."
In fact, even now that the record's mastered, pressed and ready for release, Shires still isn't quite finished with it. Taking full advantage of the DIY promotional opportunities afforded by the age of social media, she plans to film videos for every song on the album, with "When You Need a Train It Never Comes" and "Lovesick I Remain" already uploaded to YouTube and more on the way. "We just shot one for 'Shake the Walls' today, and 'Ghostbird' will be next," she says. "I want 'Ghostbird' to be animated."
What's more, she's still haunted by some of the songs that didn't make the Carrying Lightning cut - if only because they didn't quite fit the theme of the rest of the record. Some of these she hopes to release before year's end as a separate EP.
"They were just too dark and would have seemed too random, I guess," she says of the orphan tunes. How dark? One of them apparently involved a girl getting her skin sliced off.
"Actually, that one was kind of a love song," she admits with a sheepish chuckle. "Maybe I should have left that one on the record!"
"Godfather" Waits would be proud.
The Bottle Rockets
Saint Louis MO | Rock
In a country where interstates don’t take you to new places, but to the same places, where everywhere you go you’ve already been or you’ve just left, The Bottle Rockets’ new album absolutely nails a sound and a vibe with a palpable sense of place. Lean Forward is suffused with the determination and resilience of their distinctly midwestern roots; theirs is a celebration of pragmatism and tempered optimism, not the delusions and exhortations of glassy eyed zealots—they aren’t going to fall for that. Oh, it’s a flat out, smoking rock record, too.
Lean Forward continues the Rockets’ creative resurgence ignited by 2006’s Zoysia. Reunited with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (who ran the knobs on the Bottle Rockets’ seminal albums The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours A Day), the Bottle Rockets do what no other band does better — look into the hearts and minds and faces of the dying small towns in America and crafts populist anthems with the sympathetic eye of Woody Guthrie and sonic stomp of Crazy Horse. They are songs that demand the windows be rolled down and the volume turned up. And with the hooks, you’ll wonder how they make such problems sound so good …
Lean Forward is stacked with a sharp lyricism and gritty fatalism that looks off the front porch for inspiration, and has the locked down groove of a band on top of its game. “The Long Way” looks on the bright side of the path not intentionally taken and works into a joyous song-ending jam. Songs like “Done It All Before” and “Get on the Bus” shine with an irresistible buoyancy, as does “Shame on Me” which gets to the meat of the relationship matter that, despite our best intentions, we’re all gonna screw up. “Hard Times” whips up a ZZ Top-inflected boogie with effortless mastery and a dual guitar attack that’ll put some much-needed flare back in your jeans.
On “Kid Next Door,” the lyrics bypass protest in favor of simple commentary on a war coming home, making it a far more powerful song no matter where one stands on the issue. It’s a stone cold classic and handled with the deftness and conviction that speaks to the Rockets’ sober-minded realism. To see that they’ve still got scruffy punk moxie to spare, look no further than “The Way It Used To Be” and the channeling of Bo Diddley via the Stooges on “Nothing but a Driver.”
With their 15th anniversary now in the rear view mirror, the Bottle Rockets show no signs of letting up. Lean Forward is an album that celebrates the forces of erosion not earthquakes, of the marathon not the sprint. Honed in their towns and on their back roads, it is distinctly the Bottle Rockets. Rather than be confining, this identity broadens the appeal and strength of their music far from their backyards into our own. Their specificity speaks universally and the message is a simple one: Lean forward, man, because it beats falling back.
Cashville VA | Country
Three years ago, Mike Stinson took a big chance. After clawing his way to the top of the country music club scene in Los Angeles where he was described by Billboard Magazine as the king of the neo-honky-tonkers, Stinson, who wrote Dwight Yoakam’s stellar “Late Great Golden State,” packed a U-Haul, chucked his place in the West Coast pecking order, and moved to Texas to start fresh.
And Texas certainly had an effect on the cerebral Virginian who called L.A. home for 18 years. He fell in love with the space, the torrential rains, and the laid back feel of his new home, Houston. With two stellar, critically praised albums of hardcore honky-tonk and “barnyard rock and roll” in his LA past, immediately upon arrival in Texas he dropped The Jukebox In Your Heart, recorded with Jesse Dayton and his band at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studios. “No One To Drink With” from the album was voted best song of the year by the Houston Press in 2010.
But while these tunes certainly received a Texas treatment under Dayton’s guidance, these were songs written prior to the Texas move. Stinson’s already-completed next album, Hell and Half of Georgia, is a mixture of muscular Joe Ely-ish roadhouse bruisers and sawdust-floor tonkers mostly written since relocating. And with noted roots producer R.S. “The Ionizer” Field commanding the ship, Stinson completed the best sounding, most hook-filled album of his career.
A rare voice in this cluttered world of country pop and banjos-for-the-sake-of-banjos alternative country, Stinson has set the bar as high it goes with the monumental “This Year.” One listen to this gripping song establishes that Stinson’s pen is as sharp as any. Stinson is the king of broken hearts, and with “This Year,“ he captures the torment of love like few can. He also shows his cleverness by turning his problems with punctuality into a scorching Bob Dylan-ish burner called “Late For My Funeral.”
Anyone who knows Stinson knows he’s a stubborn cuss, and he lets his attitude roam with loose rein on radio-friendly head-bobber “May Have To Do It” with its slightly dangerous warning: “May have to do it, don’t have to like it.” Suffice to say the witty troubadour has had some day jobs in his past he’d just as soon forget. He also works in the Dylan-ish verse, “Aunt Jemima said that Uncle Sam wants to send me to Afghanistan / He’ll bring me home with a family plan and I hope you don’t mind the sand.”
Fact of the matter is, Hell and Half of Georgia elevates Stinson’s game to new heights. And with his crack road band, he remains one of the only bands on the circuit who can do a four-hour two-step honky-tonk gig one night and do an hour-and-a-half rock showcase the next without a change of expression.
It’s no wonder longtime Los Angeles writers like Robert Hilburn and Chris Morris flipped for Stinson’s legitimacy, his realness, his utter sincerity, and his ruthless pursuit of his art. Texas writers like the Houston Press’s music editor Chris Gray did too: “Mike Stinson moved here as the pen inside Dwight Yoakam’s “The Late Great Golden State” and soon gave Houston its best honky-tonk album of the young decade, The Jukebox In Your Heart. A wounded warrior-poet like Bruce Springsteen (“Atlantic City” is a set highlight), Stinson has recorded an as-yet-unreleased follow-up that steps on the gas and lets the heartaches fly.”
The leader of one of the hardest working bands around, Stinson is winning fans one stellar song and one barn-burning show at a time.