JAIMIE VERNON – THANK GOD I’M NOT A COUNTRY BOY

It’s confession time. Some of my devoted readers are not going to like it. It’s related to my disdain for certain genres of music so if you’ve got a strong constitutional defense for the music you love you may want to read the ‘New Yorker’ in your smoking jacket instead. Or track down re-re-re-runs of the Grand Ol’ Opry on TVland. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool music snob. I have no patience or interest in Jazz, The Blues or Country music. I can hear the outraged cries of “whaaaaaaa???” as I write this. I don’t want to hear it (your protestations or the music). You know those sales guys that call your house trying to sell you what you don’t need? You can’t sell me on any of these genres….I have zero need for them in my life.

They do not speak to me, move my soul or penetrate my cholesterol -riddled heart strings…hell they don’t even make me tap my foot. I’m 49 and I’m conversion resistant. On a Facebook thread this week someone said that George Jones’ voice had once been compared to a steel guitar. I asked whether or not that was a good thing. ‘Cos I can only imagine it sounding like a tornado damaged tin roof from a barn being dragged across 40 miles of rusty train tracks. I don’t know why or how I grew my dislike. Maybe it’s merely the fact that I grew up on nothing but pop music my entire life – though, that’s not even 100% accurate because my father was playing Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and Eddie Arnold records around the house a lot when I was growing up. And I do get a bit nostalgic when I hear those old tunes. But, maybe it’s not the music at all, just a reminder of my Dad. Still, there is little doubt that the line-dancing, boot-scootin’, Bohunk dufus, cowboy hatted clichés of my generation are nothing but an embarrassing Gong Show. Don’t believe me? Just check out the Twitter meltdown this past week with Hootie & The Blowfish’s Darius Rucker trying to prove his Country credibility. http://www.countryweekly.com/news/darius-rucker-accepts-twitter-challenge

It’s not about the music anymore – it’s about branding. At some point the Country Music community had a meeting in the board room of a music publishing company in Nashville, Tennessee around 1988 – the Council of Beale Street , as it were – where it was unanimously decided that the Podunk, corn-stalk chawin’, dungaree wearing, banjo plucking , wife-beating, whiskey-drinking, cousin-fucking image of Country needed a facelift. And they weren’t about to wait for another Dolly Parton breast reduction or a Kenny Rogers facelift gone wrong to sink the genre once and for all. So, instead, they just replaced an out-dated set of ridiculous stereotypes with a whole set of new ones. A bunch of failed rock artists stuck Stetsons on their heads, cowboy boots on their feet and bolero ties around their necks and suddenly guys that were lawyers and accountants during the week were strapping on Stratocasters and long-sleeve denim shirts and hitting the stage on the weekends. And radio gave it a clever name: NEW Country. I wonder how many consulting firms it took to come up with that brilliant marketing tagline? [News flash, Brainiacs – New Country is over 20 years old now…time for another new marketing name].

On a base level I don’t relate to the lifestyles espoused by country songs. It’s a truly foreign concept to this city slicker. Nobody has gone and done me wrong. I’ve never made love to my high school sweetheart in a barn full of pig manure and I’ve certainly never driven naked in a pick-up truck drunk and threatened to kill the police. Oh, wait…that’s a Randy Travis song that’s YET to be written.

So, this brings me to a rather interesting dilemma. I have three genre related albums sitting before me awaiting review. As someone who prefers to promote indie music and give artists a promotional leg up in this competitive social media era, I would rather not review a CD at all by wasting everyone’s time slagging it (mind you, if it’s a major label artist all bets are off). I have the luxury of just not review a CD every now and then ‘cause I don’t get paid one thin dime to do what I do, but there’s no excuse for doing that to everything that doesn’t meet my personal tastes. It’s not like I haven’t reviewed stuff outside of my comfort zone before; But, going into a review with a negative bias before even listening to the music could be as damaging as slagging it. Still, people have made the effort to not only record and manufacture these collections of songs, but they’ve sent the material to me at MY request. They’re trusting that I’ll be fair and conscientious. I owe them the courtesy of some kind of objective overview and/or review. Surprisingly, even to me, I didn’t hate everything I received. I’ve hereby put on my analytical cap, approached the material as a professional listening for song efficacy, arrangement, production, song writing chops, and performance. I’m taking this as a challenge and decided that the genre doesn’t matter. The only question remains – is this the artist’s best foot forward? Here’s hoping I’ve been able to explain that effectively enough to allow others to find and enjoy the works of these acts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s hot and I need a dip in the Chattahoochee.

SARAH SMITH “Stronger Now” Smith has been beating about Canada for a decade as the lead vocalist/guitarist for rock leathernecks The Joys. I was blown away by their last album with its rough-n-ready blues rock stance and Smith’s vocal versatility – covering all the angles between a smoky Sass Jordan and a controlled chanteuse like Amanda Marshall. In a complete surprise, especially to this scribe, she decided to take the plunge and go solo. More surprising was getting the new album ‘Stronger Now’ and finding out it was steeped in New Country-isms. Producer/engineer Kevin Doyle (he of Canadian rock production fame) has helped Smith carve out a slick by-the-numbers ten song debut that is perfect – that is, not a single musical hair is out of place: every guitar line, every solo, every bridge is exactly where it’s supposed to be. In other words, the rough edges and unpredictability that endeared me to Smith initially has been sanded down and lacquered. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Someone that’s been at it this long deserves a fresh start with a more mature, more accessible release that might very well get her the respect she’s deserved for too long. A lot of others believe in her talent as well. Her and award winning songwriter Tim Thorney (Cassandra Vasik, Joel Feeney) co-writes five of the album’s songs here – including the hooky and single-worthy “Shine Bright” and the Michele Wright-esque “Can’t Wait” plus a rolling, dreamy prairie ditty called ‘The Lucky One’. She also takes a shot at a song written by the co-genius behind Amanda Marshall’s early success, David Tyson, and his co-write with Matt Nolen and Ryan Tyndell called ‘Wake Me Up’. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t quite hit the mark – maybe because, lyrically, it’s not Smith’s own thoughts and she sounds removed from its immediacy. Smith shines brighter, and with more conviction, when she writes with Thorney or with the album’s parade of stunt writers from the  Rock genre  – Honeymoon Suite’s Derry Grehan (“Into the Light”), the power-balladish title track with Harem Scarem’s Harry Hess or the best track on the album, “More”, with Simon Wilcox. Tacked onto the end of the album, almost as an afterthought is the lone Sarah Smith written acoustic track called “Reload” – the most personal and best executed song on the disc. Her voice soars and her vulnerability bleeds for the entire three minutes: “I’m hiding beneath your little wing now/’Cause I’m a fragile little toy gun”.  My hope for this album, and Sarah Smith, is that by standing on the shoulders of her mentors, she can  parlay that into commercial success and one day reclaim more of her own personality on future releases; ‘Cos there’s a great singer and a great songwriter waiting to break out and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg here. http://www.sarahsmithmusic.com

MARTA PACEK “Rebel Baby” The title of Marta Pacek’s third record is truly deceiving. The word rebel conjures up either cinema icon James Dean or Civil War re-enactors pointing bayonets at each other on sweltering July weekends in Gettysburg. Pacek is neither of these things. In fact, her songs and her music aren’t so much against the status quo as they are a measure of her ability to alter the perception of the music listener. A rebellion would mean a single, monosyllabic drive against authority. Instead, what we have on this record is controlled anarchic diversity – it pushes AND pulls simultaneously. Hmm…maybe that’s the rebel’s job after all. Pacek flirts with all manner of country-equated styles throughout the 12 tracks: Canadiana (“These Days”, “Milk & Honey”, “A Way to Fall”, “Nobody’s Crying”), uptempo and boppy 1950s Kitty Wells-styled shuffles (“A Girl Gets By”, “Over to Your Side”), Edith Piafian Romanish/Gypsy folk (“Twisted With Love”, “Let Me Down”), Alt-Country (“Back In the Middle”, “Annie”), and even melodic Everything But the Girl post-punk Brit pop (“In the Name of Love”, “Think It Over”). Pacek’s voice recalls the more dynamic pursuits of Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and 10,000 Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant. There’s a little for everyone here and repeated listens reveal the subtle contributions of the album’s other players including the guitar presence of co-writer Neil Murchison. Pacek herself wrote, co-wrote and co-produced the majority of tracks on the album with the lone ‘cover’ tune being “Nobody’s Crying” by Patty Griffin. The album is a great collaborative listen and is recommended for those looking for something completely removed from the Country music genre but orbiting the same solar system. http://www.musicbymarta.com

TOM HOUSE “Winding Down the Road” Tom House’s new album is, by far, one of the most challenging releases I’ve ever had to listen to; And this coming from someone who voluntarily sat through The Residents’ debut album ‘Meet the Residents’ and Yoko Ono’s ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ – more than once. House is being hailed as a folk and/or acid folk indie wunderkind stateside right now and I can see why. He taps into the anti-establishment artistry of a previous generation steeped in free expression at the hands of The Fuggs, Country Joe McDonald, Wild Man Fisher and Captain Beefheart whose views of Western musical forms began and ended with blank pages to either bleed on or piss on. ‘Winding Down the Road’, released on Lanark, Ontario label Mud Records, is genre defying  – parts Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen poetry (“Paradox With Suitcase”, “Gradual Awakening”), parts Dylan, Seeger and Guthrie folk protestation (“Jericho”, “Someone’s Digging In the Underground”) and parts playful vaudevillian lunacy (“Pappy Closed the Book”). It’s swamp rock. It’s Ozark Mountain back country ‘Deliverance’. It’s moonshine hillbilly lyrical fornication. It’s indefinable. Do yourself a favour and shed the norm. Cast off your pre-conceived notion of what you think music is supposed to sound like and check out House. As an acquaintance of mine has been known to say, “I prefer non-singer singers. There’s no pretense.” Tom House is as unpretentious and honest as they come. He’s in a class unto himself. http://www.mudrecords.ca http://www.tomhousesongspoems.blogspot.com

Quick Quips…. – Fresh off his debut album ‘Just Sayin’ produced by Harry Hess (Harem Scarem), Franlklin McKay has released his 3rd single, “Destiny’’, as a solo version and as a duet featuring Heather Rankin (The Rankin Family). Released on July 16, the song is already at #39 on Billboard Magazine’s AC Chart (USA) and up to #37 on Mediabase’s Main AC Chart (USA) with Top25 showings in Monterey (California), Knoxville (Tennessee), and Jackson (Mississippi).

– Toronto’s Makeda Taylor has been an activist for musicians and songwriters who often Tweets and posts related public information for her fellow song writers on Facebook. She’s also a damn good singer-songwriter in her own right. She’s completed her new album ‘Peace of Mind’ and wants to release it in October. A Kapipal fund has been set up to raise money to complete the manufacturing and additional production costs. Check it out here and donate what you can: http://www.kapipal.com/peaceofmind P.S. Make sure you click the video link on the page to hear her rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.

– Bumstead Records is looking for folks in or around the LA area willing to help promote the August 21st appearance by Canadian band the Trews at the Viper Room. If so, please drop a line to info@bumstead.com – they could use the assistance. Listen to ’em here http://www.thetrewsmusic.com/

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

5 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – THANK GOD I’M NOT A COUNTRY BOY”

  1. To me, the most disturbing part of Modern (er, New) Country is the assembly line attitude of Nashville. Have a hit by a two-male, two-female group with tendencies toward harmony? Find another. Have a hit with a song steeped in urban rock with slight twang? Record more. That cookie-cutter mentality destroyed Nashville for me quicker than no-talent hacks like Toby Keith. By today’s standards, The Outlaws and 38 Special would be considered Country, especially if they donned the pleather hat (the people who designed those should be shot— Nike, I’ll bet) and the duster. Indeed, Nashville (the music industry hub, not the city) would be boring to me if they weren’t so goddamn pompous about themselves.

    I want to yell stop, but you won’t let me. You keep tossing music in my path. Two more artists to check out (I’m especially intrigued by Marta Pacek). And we agree on Tom House. You got him right. Hard to pin down but super hard to ignore.

    Now get back to editing the second half of The Encyclopedia of Canadian Rock. It won’t write itself, you know.

  2. Modern country, or new country, is just second-rate rock’n’roll with a steel guitar and/or fiddle. Nashville’s cookie cutter approach is simply a copy of what worked in the pop business…real music labels, owned by visionaries who love music, are almost a thing of the past. Indies, yes, but the majors are all about the benjamins and if you have talent too, well gollee! We can steal your publishing, tell you what you can and can’t record, exploit your looks and make a dime!

    Funny thing is that alll three of the artists you reviewed here sound interesting. You make me want to buy their cds and that is the hallmark of a good reviewer…

    Now get back to the encyclopedia!

  3. You’re both slave drivers….

  4. Max Brand Says:

    i’ve known Sarah Smith since 2005 and The Joys are among the best rock groups around which they certainly deserve more credit because their music is never boring to listen too and they always put on amazing shows all over ontario. Sarah has really stepped it up as a solo performer that may overshadow her band a bit but she’s doing music music they way she wants to create even many writers consider her stuff country. I don’t see Sarah falling into the the factory machine of being a country singer she just considers herself being a songwriter being in a band and enjoy doing it for the love of music instead of marketing appeal.

  5. Makeda, I remember her! I wish her the best!
    I can’t stand Nashville Country..but that stuff they are puttin’ out in Texas, oh yeah!!!!
    I remember as a child my mom playing Hank Snow..we children would all holler OH NO! It’s Hank Snow. He’s kind of grown on me over the years though. I found myself almost ordering the Time Life Country Classics the other day too. Strange how tastes change over the years.. I like everthing but most rap. Some I can get, the other phooey.

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