Five Unknown Songwriters Who Deserve to Be Heard
Taylor Swift recently won her sixth straight Nashville Songwriters Award, as well as Artist of the Year at last Sunday's American Music Awards. I'm no hater, but let that sink in for a minute.
Six. In a row. Taylor Swift.
I'm no one to disparage her talents. She writes good, catchy songs that stick with people like the sauce on a Memphis rack of ribs. For lots of folks, what she serves up is finger-lickin' good, and that's okay if you're the kind of music fan content with condiments. I prefer some meat on the bone, something that's going to settle in my belly and keep me nourished for awhile.
One can't really blame Nashville Songwriters Association International, the group handing out this honor, for the results. Its award is, in part, based on the number of Top 30 singles a Nashville artist charts in a year. No one in Nashville has had more than Swift for more than half a decade now.
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Like I said, I'm no hater. But maybe it's time to infuse some new, young, hungry talent into Music City's musical veins. Here are five unjustly obscure artists who should head there before next year's award is presented.
CASPER ALLEN An Albuquerquian and sometimes Coloradan by way of Canton, Texas, Allen is an up-and-coming folksie, blues wailer. His 2013 release on Goathead Record Collective, Damn Sun, is big-kid music. Listen to a song like "Biscuits & Gravy," ("She likes her daddy all slathered in gravy,...") when you have time to do whatever might come next. You know, the sort of raunchy stuff you ain't gonna do listening to Red or Fearless.
Sparse but effective instrumental backing from Caitlyn Calhoun and Paulina Talle allow Allen's honky-tonk-ready voice to take the spotlight. It's got the sort of backroad gravel that makes you feel the tire tread left on a heart in lines like "And I see the way you wanna cry, but keep that feelin' between your thighs/ I hate to say hello sometimes but I always hate goodbye."
CHICKEN LITTLE! Criminally, many of this duo's songs of broken hearts and redemption -- and the horrifying prospect of not being able to get the hell out of Oklahoma -- were written in Nashville, right under the noses of whomever was issuing Tay-Tay all those awards.
Emma Berkey and Dave Cuomo's "Tennessee half-pint folk punk" is beautifully preserved on their fine effort No One, Never, Nothing. The CD was released in 2010, the same year Swift was receiving her third NSA. This year they issued Disaster!, another great set of songs, before making Facebook posts suggesting they may be on hiatus or hanging it up altogether.
Now Nashville restaurateurs, I wish them success but hope they don't quit their night jobs. They're engaging live because their musically-trained voices -- an anomaly in folk-punk -- join in such harmonic perfection you'll think you're at an opera (Opry?) house instead of a house show when you hear them sing.
MATT PLESS Matt Pless hails from Baltimore, but these days, he lives everywhere. His nonstop troubadouring across the country recalls Woody Guthrie; but Pless's songwriting style is influenced by Guthrie's biggest fan, Bob Dylan.
He probably hates it, but it's hard not to make comparisons. Pless's brunette, wavy locks recall Dylan's Blonde on Blonde moment. Aside from the look, his lyrics have the bard-like precision, wit and impact of early Dylan. He's prolific -- he's released two CDs this year, The Bus Stop EP and Tumbleweed, which is a personal favorite because it features the sort of existential self-knowledge I gravitate to in lines like "life's a high you can't sustain." Listen to the clever rhyme scheme and American themes in "What You Will" and it's like you're hearing the modern reboot of "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Apart from his voice, which runs in higher registers, he's damn near the youngest son of an Elston Gunn.
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The last time I saw this Prescott, Ariz., artist perform, I said to her something I'd never say to Tay Swift, even if I had the chance.
"You're a bad motherfucker," I told her. She took it for the compliment it was meant to be.
Nashville could use a new Johnny Cash, and Williams is my choice. For one, she frequently dresses in black. But, she also performs with a no-nonsense confidence that belies some noticeable shyness. Her guitar playing is solid, good enough to throw down for her crust-metal-sludge band, Windmill of Corpses. Her voice sounds like grandma's cold remedy - part lemony bitterness, a whole lot of whiskey and a few drips of carefully measured honey.
Her songs are poetic and catchy, vulnerable and assured. She sings in a grownup way about lost love on songs like "My Ever Changing Mind," something so superior to telling an ex that you'll never ever get back together it hurts in its unfairness that it doesn't have a broader audience.
RADIO FLYER I refuse to believe the world wouldn't benefit from knowing Houston's own Radio Flyer better. Andrew Hoskins performs by that stage name and writes songs that are so honest and hopeful they can't really be popular. Not in a country-music world that focuses so much on repeated heartbreak, who's "more country" or what the next C&W dance craze will be .
Hoskins spent years on the road with the likes of Black Death All-Stars, perfecting a sound he could take to the Grand Ole Opry today for all the, ahem, "old farts" who appreciate traditional country music. The twang in his voice, his ability to stand alone and entertain and his eager demeanor are everything that once was honored in Nashville.
What I love best about his work is how self-assured it is, no small feat for someone who has been performing for years and still doesn't have a deservedly larger audience. "You won't see me backing down, my whole world counts on me..." and "everything I know I know like someone told to me," he sings in "Growing Up So Fast," sentiments that can really only be known by someone who hasn't had the world laid at his or her feet.
Jesse's short-fiction piece, "You, at the Beach," is featured in the 2013 issue of Huizache. If you've ever wondered whether your life's as interesting as an average 50-year-old's, follow him on Twitter.
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