There is no way to cohesively try and explain country music. Much of it comes down to a feeling of: You’ll know it when you hear it. The roots go back further than anyone could ever imagine and have sprouted and splintered off into many different subgenres. At the core, though, is content. If you ever played a country song backwards you’d end up getting back everything you lost. That’s not to say there aren’t happy and peppy moments, it is just that the genre has had a way of flirting with the pains of society. Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to see a wide variety of country music and its offshoots. I caught Dolly Parton at the Smoothie King Center, Willie Nelson at the House of Blues, Rhett Miller of Old 97s fame at the Parish, the return of Coyotes at Three Keys, the reinvented Aaron Lewis at the Joy, and Hill Country Hounds and Gal Holiday at Tipitina’s.
It’s pretty easy to lump some of the acts together–Dolly and Willie, Rhett and the Coyotes, Arron and the Hounds. The outlier being Gal Holiday. She has a swamp-pop blend of country, swing, and rock that is a genre unto itself. Dolly and Willie are some of the originators and mainstays of country music. Their fan base is deep, as are the other bands, but when you’ve played as much as they have, you can see the differences.
Dolly thrives on the glamor of the stage experience, while Willie is just laid back. His show at the House of blues at times came across as a giant 50 plus year old frat party, with everyone singing along. It was nice to finally hear him live, but the hour and ten minute set seemed a bit rushed and left the audience wanting more. Dolly, on the other hand, put on quite a production, complete with dress changes. While I was only able to shoot the first two songs of her set, I was taken in by her joyfulness, the hunger she played with on stay, and the way she remained humble throughout the entire set.
Rhett Miller and the Coyotes both hail from the south. Rhett is from Texas and the Coyotes here in New Orleans by way of L.A. and Nashville. Living this far south, country music has often concentrated around the usual suspects, but by some odd stretch of luck, call it the Uncle Tupelo effect, the birth of alt-Country was born.
Artists who channel alt-country tend to incorporate roots rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, honky-tonk, alternative rock, folk rock, and punk rock to get that sound. Both Rhett and the Coyotes have music coming out this year and both of hteir live shows served as the perfect platform to play some of their new material. Rhett was joined by Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours. Evan, instead of doing the standard opener act, joined Rhett on stage all night where they traded off songs. The two played together as if they had been doing it for a long time; when in fact, they just started playing together. The mutual respect for each other spilled out into the audience and was abundantly present on stage. The two enjoyed telling stories about their music and in turn the audience was given an unexpected treat, being able to understand where some of the tracks came from.
I could easily write a thousand words on the Coyotes and not even begin to scratch the surface. I was devastated at the end of last year when I put it together that I had in deed witnessed Duz’s last show in New Orleans. I was sorely and happily wrong. New drummer in tow, while Derick is out of town and Jonny (Lost Bayou Ramblers, Brass Bed) sitting in on lap steal, sounded solid with the band. Add to that the fact that the Three Keys bar has one of the best sounds and looks out there. The great thing about the new music that the Coyotes played is the fact that a lot of it was pre-recorded, in my brain, from all the other shows I had seen of theirs.
Aaron Lewis and the Hill Country Hounds, while different as night and day, still have a pure roots feeling running throughout their music. Gimmicks and bells and whistles don’t have much of a place in their music. The closest thing that would come to one would be Aaron Lewis’s unique covers. Another great part of Lewis’s set is the fact he keeps to his rock roots covering a couple of Stained tracks. Even as he was singing, I could still hear those hints of his past slipping out. The Hill Country Hounds, although only being together for about three years now, have a band that is put together by decades of music experience. Jason Brettel, Larry Hall, Jamie Bernstein, Miguel Barrosse, and Bruce Tyner make up the band and play together like a well-oiled machine.
Lastly in this exercise exists the outlier of the batch, Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Review. Gal Holiday is more than Vanessa Niemann alter ego; it’s a lifestyle and the true embodiment of New Orleans. The band has managed to reinvent and give a grand resurgence to the swamp pop movement of the ’50s and early ’60s. Holiday, front and center, commands the stage with an ease of a seasoned veteran. That may be because she has played over 1,000 shows. Niemann’s live band used to include Afghan Whigs guitarist David Rosser. His take of the swamp pop country genre is spot on, but sadly he hasn’t been able to play with the band for a while, due to health issues. David Brouillette plays stand-up bass and usually nestled between Rose Cangelosi on drums and Greg Good on acoustic guitar. With Vanessa tackling vocals, David serves as a cornerstone for the rest of the band. The band really has taken Tipitina’s under its wings and every time they play, the bring with them a fun crowd. They will be playing Jazz Fest again this ear.
I’ll know it when I hear it; much like the notion of I know it when I see it, holds true for the most part when listening to country music as compared to other musical genres. Being brought up in a home that was a combination of classic rock and old time country gave me the roots to hear those nuances in the splinted genre. You can see shots from many of the noted bands above here: http://stevenlhatley.jalbum.net/