This week’s show features awesome Texas artists of various styles and sounds doing their thing on our stage in Tennessee.
Trube and Farrell first began playing together in 1999 after Farrell answered Trube’s ad for a keyboardist in the LA Weekly. The pair toured and recorded in several places before returning to Tyler, Texas, Trube’s hometown. Along the way, they wrote songs that were performed by musicians such as Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. The group’s 2004 full-length, Liberty, was written inside the historic Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler, Texas by Trube, Farrell, and drummer Nick Pencis. The songs written for Liberty were then recorded at Truck Farm Studio in New Orleans, Louisiana and produced by Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio of Galactic. The album features guest vocals by Ani DiFranco. The album was named Liberty as a tribute to the time spent in the theatre while composing the material for the album.
Greyhounds opened the 2009 tour of American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. In the late 2000s and early 2010s Trube and Farrell performed as part of the touring band of JJ Grey & Mofro. In 2013, Greyhounds signed a three-album contract with the newly reconstituted Ardent Records. Their first release for Ardent, Accumulator, was issued in April 2014.
In the tightknit musical community of Austin, Texas, it’s tough to get away with posturing. You either bring it, or you don’t.
If you do, word gets around. And one day, you find yourself duetting with Bonnie Raitt, or standing onstage with the Allman Brothers at New York’s Beacon Theater and trading verses with Susan Tedeschi. You might even wind up getting nominated for a Best Blues Album Grammy — three times in a row. And those nominations would be in addition to your seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, and the title of an “inspiring American Artist” as a United States Artists 2018 Fellow.
There’s only one Austinite with that résumé: Ruthie Foster. And with the release of her latest album, Joy Comes Back, the Recording Academy might want to put its engraver on notice. Because every note on it confirms this truth: It’s Ruthie’s time. The small rural town of Gause, TX had no chance of keeping the vocal powerhouse known as Ruthie Foster to itself. Described by Rolling Stone as “pure magic to watch and hear,” her vocal talent was elevated in worship services at her community church. Drawing influence from legendary acts like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, Foster developed a unique sound unable to be contained within a single genre. That uniqueness echoes a common theme in Ruthie’s life and career – marching to the beat of her own drum.
Now comes Ruthie’s latest – Joy Comes Back – again on Blue Corn Music. When she recorded this album, Foster wasn’t merely singing about love and loss; she was splitting a household and custody of her 5-year-old daughter. Music was her therapy.
In the warm confines of Austin producer and former neighbor Daniel Barrett’s studio, she found a comfort level she’d never before experienced while recording. It gave her the strength to pour the heartache of her family’s fracture and the cautious hope of a new love into 10 incredible tracks, nine of which are by a diverse array of writers ranging from Mississippi John Hurt, Sean Staples and Grace Pettis (daughter of renowned folk singer Pierce Pettis), to Chris Stapleton and Black Sabbath. Yes, Black Sabbath: Foster reimagines “War Pigs” as a jam session with Son House. She also covers the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” written by Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder.
And she makes each one hers, aided by some special guests. Derek Trucks drops slide guitar into the title tune; bassist Willie Weeks (Bowie, Clapton, George Harrison) plays on the Foster-penned “Open Sky”; and drumming legend Joe Vitale (Crosby, Stills & Nash; Eagles) appears on several tracks. Local hero Warren Hood (“Champ Hood’s boy,” as Foster calls him) lays fiddle and mandolin on Hurt’s bluegrass-tinted “Richland Woman Blues.” Barrett plays guitars, drums and percussion; other contributors include the core members of Ruthie’s touring band, Samantha Banks and Larry Fulcher.
At one point, Barrett described the album to Hood as “some blues, some folk, some soul, some rock, some gospel.” Hood replied, “Sounds like Ruthie Foster music.”
Duende, the title of The Band of Heathens’ fifth studio album (and eighth overall), marks their tenth anniversary as a group, and it certainly applies to its overall theme about the collective search for connection and communion in a technology-fueled world increasingly splintered, distracted and lonely. As band co-founder Ed Jurdi, who first learned of the term, explains, “It’s the essence of the artist,” or as partner Gordy Quist says, “It’s a word we don’t have an equivalent for in English, Artistically, that’s where we tried to set the bar, to do what this band does best.”
Indeed, Duende lives up to those high ideals, a stylistically diverse effort that takes a leap beyond their last, more acoustic, introspective effort, 2013’s Sunday Morning Record, with an eclectic batch of material that shows where The Band of Heathens has been, but more importantly, where they are going.
There are high-energy rockers like the Keith Richards-Chuck Berry guitars and barrelhouse piano in “Trouble Came Early” as well as the Grateful Dead-by-way-of J.J. Cale Oklahoma boogie in “Keys to the Kingdom,” The Band-meets-New Orleans honky-tonk blues of “Sugar Queen,” the British Invasion harmonies laced through “Deep Is Love,” the south-of-the-border flavor of “Road Dust Wheels” and the New Riders pedal steel country twang of “Green Grass of California,” an ode to the more potent strains of sensimilla on the dispensary shelf and a fervent plea to “legalize it.” Duende also touches on some of The Band of Heathens’ favorite topics, from the sacrifices of a life lived on the road (“All I’m Asking”) to the limits of materialism (“Keys to the Kingdom”), social media absorption (“Cracking the Code”), and a moving depiction of Mexican immigration in an age of increased discrimination (“Road Dust Wheels”).
“Road Dust Wheels” is particular timely, dealing specifically with the migration of workers from Mexico and Latin America. “It’s not about the politics of the situation,” explains Jurdi, “but a meditation on people trying to get together to find their own slice of the American Dream, which has been our greatest export to the outside world. Unfortunately, we’ve got leaders trying to divide us, spitting venom and vitriol, trying to get elected by pitting us against each other rather than realizing, almost without exception, we create the same felling of community and connection, regardless of religion, race or immigration status.”
Similarly, according to Quist, “Keys to the Kingdom” is a portrait of someone who falls prey to the consumer culture of more, unable to enjoy the present because she’s obsessed with wanting more in the future… and it doesn’t end well. “Sugar Queen” is its sequel, the same character as a newly divorced cougar looking for love in a younger man, told from the perspective of that younger man, another song about the thirst for real connection.
Thematically, Quist’s “Cracking the Code” comes closest to reiterating the album’s desire to reconsider the value of relationships and priorities in a world of virtual reality and social media.
“While modern technology has certainly allowed us to stay in touch over vast distances – something a band that lives on the road certainly appreciates – it doesn’t really provide the authentic connection we crave,” says Gordy. “We’ve created a portal through which we lose ourselves and miss what’s really going on right in front of us, hiding the fact our supposed connected culture can be a really lonely place.”
“Deep Is Love” is another song about loneliness on the road, according to Quist. “At the time, I felt like I had all these tools to stay in touch with my family – from Facetime to Skype – but all the while we were missing the deeper connection that comes from being physically present in one another’s lives.”
Likewise, Jurdi describes “All I’m Asking” as a song about “missing his wife… lost opportunities, second chances and getting back to the place where it’s just about two people in the same room having a special moment together without outside interference.”
Armed with almost 40 songs all together, the group recorded in a variety of different locations, the majority in the Texas Treefort, a studio in their own Austin backyard, where they took advantage of the vintage broadcast tube equipment to create the album’s warm, inviting sound. All the tracks were initially laid down live in the studio by the full band, making an effort to keep the music infused with its “analog” elements as well as the communal feel.
“I feel the album brings together all our influences, everything we’ve done over the years as a band,” explains Jurdi. “We’ve touched on every part of our career… our roots, some singer/songwriter contemplative stuff, some high-energy rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all us, the record we were supposed to make. Ten years later, that’s what keeps us coming back.”
“We really opened ourselves up to the collaborative process this time,” adds Gordy. “The trust we have between us enabled us to chase down our individual ideas wherever they take us. That’s the beauty of being in a band.”
Engineer/co-producer Jim Vollentine (Spoon, White Rabbits, …And You’ll Know Us by the Trail of Dead) helped the album’s diversity sound coherent, adding unique touches such as mellotron and drum machines to the loping rockabilly of tracks like “All I’m Asking.”
“It’s amazing how getting the right sounds just brought the songs to life,” adds Ed. “Hearing it come back at us through the speakers was really inspiring.”
Sunny Sweeney is the party and the morning after. She’s the quip that makes you laugh and the truth that makes you cry, the devil that’s egging you on and the angel whispering that you aren’t alone. But those compelling contradictions aren’t what’s most interesting about Sweeney: it’s the depth and brazen authenticity she brings to all her roles that grabs you and won’t let go.
“I’ve grown up doing the bar scenes, and you have to have drinking and partying songs there-–you have to,” Sweeney says. “Now, my songs are still about the same things, but I feel like they’re more mature versions.”
Sweeney’s salty wisdom and Texas-hewn soprano have never sounded stronger than they do on Trophy, her anticipated new album. Trophy is a breakthrough––the album we all suspected she was capable of making. The wit and honesty that have always defined her stone-cold country have blossomed into confessional, complex songwriting for grown-ups, still whiskey-drenched and honk-tonk-ready. Drugs, death, the ex-wife, drinking, devotion, and longing for a child: it’s all here, raw and real.
“I have not felt this good about music in a really long time,” Sweeney says from her front porch in Texas. “I’m really excited.”
The success of artists including Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and others make it seem like the world is more open now than ever before to smart women singing smart country. It’s about time. Sweeney is a veteran of the trade, and has logged her miles the old-school way. A three-year residency at the Poodle Dog Lounge in Austin––“It was a dump,” she says. “They didn’t even have a credit card machine or liquor license.”––along with improv and stand-up comedy experience went a long way toward teaching her how to hold a room of cynical drunks in the palm of her hand.
The mastery of holes in the wall, major label stint, and serious songwriting chops make Sweeney something of a rarity: an artist with barroom cred, mainstream validation, and songs meaty enough for listening rooms. Or, as Rolling Stone put it in September 2016: “Sweeney is one of the rare entertainers who can hold her own at CMA Fest as well as AmericanaFest.”
Produced by Grammy nominee Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories) and recorded at Sound Emporium and Decibel Studios in Nashville, Trophygoes 10 songs deep without a single throwaway line. While Sweeney wrote with her longtime favorites including Monty Holmes, Buddy Owens and Jay Clementi, she has expanded her circle of collaborators in recent years. Lots of time writing with Lori McKenna, Caitlyn Smith, Heather Morgan, and others resulted in a deck that’s refreshingly stacked: most of the songs on the album were written by women. “I feel like I have branched out a little in the writing department,” Sweeney says. “And the record I ended up writing was pretty heavily written with females. While Sweeney didn’t intentionally set out to write almost exclusively with women, the resulting songs capture the feminine experience with a combination of nuance, humor, and accuracy only possible because of the source.
Album opener “Pass the Pain” is a perfect example of Sweeney canvassing familiar territory in a more complex way. “It’s a drinking song,” she says. “It all actually happened when I was going through my divorce.” Eased into with steel guitar and plaintive piano, the song begins with an indignant Sweeney demanding another round, but her brash confidence soon melts into a forlorn apology to the bartender reluctantly pouring her drinks, making the interaction and the hurt all the more real and sad.
“Bottle by My Bed” explores a different kind of heartbreak with breathless candor. “I only call my husband baby cause I love that word / never wanted something so bad, that it hurts / even give up these damned old cigarettes / if I could have a bottle by my bed.” Written with the awe-inspiring McKenna, the song lays Sweeney’s soul bare and captures the agony of not having a child when it’s all you want. “That song is where I’m at right now in my life,” she says. “It’s the worst pain ever. When I wrote it with Lori, I never really even imagined singing it live––I certainly never thought I’d record it. Didn’t think I had the balls to do it.” Thankfully, she did. The song is important, not just because of Sweeney’s gut-wrenching delivery, but because it tells a story too seldom told.
Sweeney wrote a total of four songs with McKenna for the record. “She’s my spirit animal,” Sweeney says of McKenna. The pair’s “Grow Old with Me” is a tender ode to finally finding love that can last. “Trophy” is a wry takedown of Sweeney’s husband’s ex-wife. A slow burn with finger snaps and sauntering bass, the song reclaims an insult and makes it a compliment to laugh-out-loud effect. “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” grapples with returning to a home that has an outsized identity you needed to escape before realizing it completes you.
The album’s two covers sound like they could have been penned by Sweeney herself. Chris Wall’s subtly brilliant waltz “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” has never been in better hands. “Pills,” written by Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, tackles addiction and impending overdose with jarring empathy and cleverness. “It’s a story about real life,” Sweeney says of the song. “Brennen is one of my best friends, and we think a lot alike.”
Perhaps most of all, Trophy is proof Sweeney knows exactly what she wants. “There’s a lot of personal stuff on this record,” she says. “I feel like the songs that get the strongest reaction are the ones that are the most truthful––the ones that have emotion. That’s my job as a writer: to evoke some kind of emotion. I want everybody who hears this album to come away with something, whether it’s to feel like they’re not alone or inspired or like they want to laugh. I just want them to feel something.”