Wintertime Tour: Week One – The Mid-South

Hey! Brian here. My wife and I are currently on a two month tour across America, playing music, (we’re The Wallens) camping out, and seeking adventure along the way.  I plan to document some of our shenanigans here on our blog, and hopefully show you a little bit of what we see out on the road.

Our camping rig consists of Merle, a 2004 Lexus LX470 and Alf, a 1996 Aliner camper. It’s not old, it’s retro!

Stop #1: Western KY

We loaded up the truck and started our big trip with a visit to…Draffenville, Kentucky! Molly’s grandparents live just outside of town, and she went to college about 25 minutes away at Murray State, so a stop to visit friends and family was in order. We set up at the Stagecoach Station Campground for a couple of nights.

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We had everything we needed, including some of the nicest campground bathrooms we’ve come across. I was particularly excited to test out our newest addition to Alf, a TV that I got for Christmas from my lovely wife. We picked up all the local channels via antenna, and we were even able to stream the College Football Championship via campground WiFi!

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It was really great to visit with Molly’s grandparents, and we got to hear some stories that would hit home a couple of tour stops later.

Stop #2: Tupelo, MS

We headed down the road a few hours to the birthplace of Elvis, and the namesake for that sweet southern honey. We camped out at Barnes Crossing, which had about 50 channels of cable! So, we spent the afternoon watching Forged in Fire on the History Channel and listening to the rain outside. Later that night, we played a funky little room called the Blue Canoe.

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Some heavy hitters have played there on their way up, including Sturgill Simpson, Shovels and Rope, and Alabama Shakes. The venue has a tradition of having every artist write their name on the wall, which was a cool way to see a lot of history all at once. You could tell that the audience was music-savvy, and our soundman, Preston, had everything dialed in. It was a perfect way to kick things off!

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Stop #3: Huntsville, AL

Next up, we headed to the Cotton State and a most unique campground location. We set up at the Space and Rocket Center RV Park, bordered by giant Saturn rockets and even a space shuttle. It wasn’t hard to find! Our show that night was at a venue that Molly connected with right off the bat; a Wisconsin-themed Packer bar called the Casual Pint.

We found out from the bartender that Huntsville is a bit of a melting pot. With NASA, Missile Command, and the Biotech Initiative in town, there are a whole lot of highly educated people that come to Huntsville for work from all over the world. We made friends with a music lover from England and an artist from West Virginia, to name a couple of folks from a really fun audience.

Stop #4: Corinth, MS

Remember how I said that Molly’s grandparents told us some stories that tied in with one of our stops? It just so happens that they got married more than 65 years ago in Corinth! Back in those days, Kentucky had a 3 day waiting period for a marriage license, and since Mississippi didn’t, a lot of young couples would make the short drive down to the Alcorn County Courthouse to get hitched. On May 18, 1954, a young Glenn and Shirley did just that, and Molly got to visit the place where it happened.

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Corinth was really good to us. First of all, the Daily Corinthian was kind enough to run a great article about our show at SMITH. We absolutely loved the venue. Great food, (Shrimp and Grits!) atmosphere, and a bunch of super-savvy music lovers sitting up front. It was really cool to be surrounded by John Prine and Jason Isbell fans!

This was also my favorite campground of the week, Cross City RV Park. Jim, the owner, is so nice and welcoming, and everything was top notch.

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Stop #5: Columbiana, AL

Our hearts were full when we left Corinth, but they were about to grow another couple of sizes. Our next show was at the brand-spanking-new Shelby County Arts Council facility. Home to classrooms, art galleries, and a BEAUTIFUL theater, we got this gig thanks to a friendship that goes back to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Bruce Andrews and George Dudley play together in a duo called 2Blu, and we all made the IBC Finals together. Bruce was kind enough to hook us up with the Sassy Brown Band, an awesome group of musicians.

The show was SOLD OUT! We got to play for 200+ people in an absolutely magical room, and then hear Sassy and the boys tear up some Patsy Cline. We even sold a cigar box guitar and a stompboard! This is highlight-of-the-year type stuff.

Shout out to Bruce and the entire SCAC for making this so special, to George for dialing in the sound so well, the Sassy Brown Band for being gracious enough to share the evening with us, and Candlewood Suites of Alabaster for sponsoring the show and giving us and Charlie a great place to stay on a chilly night.

Stop #6: Chattanooga, TN

Speaking of Charlie, he’s our canine co-pilot.

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His favorite city was DEFINITELY Chattanooga, because he got to go to a DOG BAR. Right across from our venue was a terrific place called Play Wash Pint. After our gig, we got to turn Charlie lose and play some cornhole while he ran around with some doggo friends.

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Shout out to Charles, our soundguy, for telling us about it, and for making us sound good at a really cool brunch spot, the Flying Squirrel. It was such a perfect vibe on a sunny Sunday, and it all came together perfectly. We set up camp at Holiday Travel Park, arrived in time to hear some soulful tunes from Courtney Daly, and devour some farm-to-table eats before our set. It was such a cool setup, with a listening area right around the upstairs stage and speakers playing us through the rest of the downstairs and outdoor dining areas.

Stop #7: Franklin, TN
Our final stop of the week is in Franklin! We’re here to visit Molly’s sister and her wonderful family, and also play a cozy little dive bar called Kimbros Pickin’ Parlor. This downtown spot has hosted some great ones, from John Prine to Emmylou Harris. It was about 20 degrees and snowing when we hit town, so we were grateful to have a crowd of family, friends, and friendly new faces come out to see us. (And, to be staying indoors instead of out in the camper when the show was over!)

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It was everything you’d want a Nashville-area dive bar show to be; fun, loose, and filled with laughter. We played a bunch of bluegrass and Prine tunes, and had folks from Mississippi, Colorado, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and beyond sing along with us on a few of them. Daniel and Brentley did a great job on sound (we’ve been blessed with some wonderful soundpeople on this tour), and it was the perfect way to close out our first week.

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We’ll spend the next few days resting up, spending some quality time with family, and then we’ll head for Arkansas later this week. Stay tuned!

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The Dozen: My Favorite Albums of the 2010’s

The 2010’s will probably always stand as the most impactful decade on my life. In terms of personal development, it would be hard to surpass all of the changes that happened during the past ten years. This is the decade where I became an adult. Where, in 2011, I quit my day job to start playing music for a living. Traveled to Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and 43 different American States. Lost faith and found it again. Bought a house in 2017, got married in 2018, and adopted our dog in 2019.

Through all of that, music has been a constant, unyielding presence. So, I decided to make a list of the top 12 albums of this past decade. This list is a hybrid of both “best” and “favorite”, meaning that I tried to blend my preference with the cultural and artistic impact that each record had. There are obvious holes here; I have not spent enough time with albums like Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves or Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear to rank them. The absence of such records is entirely my fault, so I hope you won’t hold those omissions against me, and I hope these rankings bring back your own musical memories.

12. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You (2018)
In an uncertain time for our world, when things were falling apart around us, Brandi Carlile gave us what she knew we needed. Is there anything better than seeing an exceptional talent put it all together for a career-defining album like this one? “The Joke” alone would be enough to put a project onto a “Best-Of” list.

Compassion and conviction permeate the 10 songs on By the Way, and everyone will find their burden is lighter, or at least feel a little more seen after a listen. You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine soul in music, and this album is a wonderful reflection of that.

11. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (2015)
John Moreland earned a reputation as a sad bastard with his first record, In the Throes. Tulsa Heat shows otherwise. There is plenty of joy to go around here; just listen to the tremolo guitars on the ironically titled “Sad Baptist Rain.” Every song on this record is just so solid. I must have listened to it two-dozen times when I first picked up a copy, and it never wore on me. It’s an exceptionally crafted album, from the songs themselves to the actual production, which was handled by John himself.

Really, there are a lot of different emotions in these songs. But the reason that Moreland has earned such a reputation for sad songs is on full display with “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry.” It’s a masterful centerpiece of a record that I’ll never hesitate to hit play on.

10. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)
During Martin Scorcese’s doc-rock-mockumentary about the Bob Dylan tour of the same name, “Rolling Thunder Revue”, there is a gem of a moment involving Bob and Hurricane Carter, the wrongly-accused boxer who became the subject of an epic song. Carter spoke of how every time he saw Dylan, “He seemed like he was searching for something else. It was as if he was saying, who are you man? Are you what I seek?”

Justin Vernon also seems to reside in that permanent place of searching for something. Meaning? Love? Acceptance? God? A place? A time? That restless spirit starts on For Emma, Forever Ago, and carries all the way through to 22, A Million and i, i. I’ve seen both of those albums on lists like this, but I have a special place in my heart for this self-titled project. The first time I heard “Holocene”, I cried. I can’t say that for very many songs.

9. Paramore – After Laughter (2017)
Hayley Williams has been one of my favorite rock-and-roll singers for a long time, but you could accuse early Paramore works of being a little shallow. Not so with After Laughter. This is heavy music, in every sense of the word. Musically, it’s heavily influenced by 80’s new-wave. Lyrically, it’s one of the saddest collections of songs that you’ll find.

During the making of this album, Hayley Williams went through a separation and subsequent divorce. This is her “Blood on the Tracks,” and if you haven’t listened to this album because it’s by a band known for pop-rock, you’re really missing out on a modern day masterpiece.

8. Amanda Shires – To the Sunset (2018)
Amanda Shires is an absolute, unabashed weirdo with a million dollar voice. She found a way to really make both of those qualities shine on Sunset, a trippy journey through the life of a badass woman who happens to be a wife, mother, and fiddler. There is zero chance that she is giving in to anything or anybody, and as she sings on “Break Out the Champagne”, “let’s get on with the shit show” seems like a perfect rallying cry for the new decade.

My admiration for Amanda Shires as a person doesn’t change the fact that this album Rocks, capital R intended. The name of the record comes from the chorus of “Eve’s Daughter,” and I think it represents her spirit so well. “Maybe it was circumstance, but I saw my chance and I took it. To the sunset, shiftin’ gears, to the somethin’-better shinin’ diamond-clear.” It’s no surprise that she ended up starting a country supergroup for all time (The Highwomen) not long after she finished this record. Like I said, she’s a badass.

7. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Speaking of badasses, Sturgill Simpson! His cynicism, disdain for the establishment, and the Telecaster are all turned up to 10 on this record. For myself and many other disillusioned Gen-Xers and Millennials, Sturgill became a true generational voice with this album.

Don’t get me wrong, hope isn’t lost. All you need is a little light, and Sturgill is here to provide it for everyone who is hoping them circles on the paper don’t call them back today. If you missed straight up honest-to-God country music the way that I did, Metamodern is water in the desert. “Long White Line” sounds like a lost-but-found track from a Waylon record, circa 1971. It’s easy to hear why Sturgill gets compared to Waylon and Willie and the boys, but he doesn’t like that comparison. Because he doesn’t like anything. Long live pissed-off Sturgill Simpson.

6. Hozier – Hozier (2014)
There aren’t a lot of artists who can lay claim to a debut like this one. Hozier burst onto the music scene with a jolt of bluesified energy, and it instantly felt like he would take over the world. This album made me spend a lot of money on tickets and drive all the way to Nashville for a concert. I’m so glad that I did, because it still ranks as one of the best shows I’ve seen. He played and sang with a conviction that reached all the way to the back row of the Ryman.

Try to count along to the multitude of rhythms and time signatures on “From Eden.” Grab a guitar and decipher the intro on “Jackie and Wilson,” or just soak in the righteous delta feel of “Work Song.” This record is one of the finest pieces of modern blues I’ve heard, and it’s very much a blessing and a curse. I went back to see Hozier in concert again this year, and he looked tired. His follow-up to this album sounded a bit tired too, and it isn’t surprising. This is one of those records that is nearly impossible to follow.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
“I got a bone to pick,” proclaims Kendrick Lamar at the start of “King Kunta.” By the time the album ends, he’ll have aired his fair share of grievances over some of the filthiest grooves you’ve ever heard. Kendrick manages to accomplish a lot of truly special things on this record; who would have thought that you could make a banger about police brutality? But that’s exactly what he does on “Alright,” with an assist from Pharrell Williams.

Everyone knew he was great after Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but this record proved Kendrick Lamar to be the best rapper on the planet. DAMN and his work on the Black Panther soundtrack further proved the point, but Butterfly is Kendrick’s Magnum Opus.

4. Chris Stapleton – Traveller (2015)
I’ve been a fan of Chris Stapleton since his bluegrass days, when he was singing about whiskey and women with The Steeldrivers. I knew his voice was incredible, and I knew his songwriting was first rate, but I had no idea that he would become the biggest selling artist in country music. This album is why.

So many of the albums on this list stem from some sort of big change in the artists’ life. Traveller is no exception, as the death of Chris Stapleton’s father spurred him to take a sojourn through New Mexico, Arizona, and the high-lonesome country of the Southwest. You can hear the desert wind blowing through tracks like “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Traveller,” and the burden of grief and loss is most evident in all-timers like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Fire Away.” Every. Single. Song. Is. Amazing. Chris Stapleton pretty much single-handedly saved commercial Country Music, and it all starts here.

3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
We view Kanye West mostly as a meme now. He’s the man entirely painted in silver on a boat in Miami, or the guy wearing a MAGA hat across from President Trump at the White House. Or, if your memory goes back far enough, he’s the arrogant jerk grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMA’s, or the disruptive force proclaiming on national TV that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s a Kardashian. It’s too easy to forget that back in 2011, he was also one of the most brilliant minds in music, and that he turned all of that personal turmoil into a true hip-hop masterpiece.

Just the names involved with this record are INSANE. Elton John, Justin Vernon, John Legend, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj, Rhianna…need I go on? This album is a legacy statement, and it marked the end of an era in the music industry. Yeezy reportedly spent over $3,000,000 of record label money to make this album, and that’s something that simply won’t happen in 2020. Fantasy marks the end of the conventional album, the last gasp of a business model based on physical album sales. It’s all streaming now, and there simply isn’t enough return on investment to make this kind of a record anymore. Before this decade ends, put on a CD copy and raise a toast to the douchebags, and to the end of the music business as we knew it before.

2. Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)
I’ll never forget where I was when I listened to this album for the first time. I was on I-80 in Iowa, heading west for a big tour. It was early in the evening, on one of those summer days when sunshine and rain are simultaneously occupying the sky. When an album starts with a song like “Cover Me Up”, it’s bound to capture my attention. But as I listened through the hard-hitting trifecta of “Traveling Alone,” “Elephant,” and “Flying Over Water,” I realized I was hearing greatness. The musical range, poetic lyricism, and emotional impact of this record launched Jason into the stratosphere, and the world is better for it.

“Cover Me Up” has become a modern standard, covered by everyone from Zac Brown to Morgan Wallen to some guy on The Voice. It’s ironic, because it was the one song on this album that I always thought was strictly off-limits. When a man spends the better part of his adult life in the throes of addiction, recovers from it thanks to the love of a woman who is every-bit his equal in talent and strength, and puts all of that into one of the truest love songs ever written…I won’t ever cover it, because no one could ever sing it like Jason.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
For the uninitiated, the best phrase to describe Sufjan is relentlessly creative. He has soundtracked films, composed symphonies, scored ballets, and he plays dozens of different instruments. He has released a number of brilliant works over the years, but nothing can possibly prepare you for the devastating beauty of this album.

The musical format is pure folk, dominated by acoustic guitar and a high pitched, mandolin-esque instrument called a guitalin. There are no drums on this record. The subject matter is deeply, painfully personal; the death of Sufjan’s mother, and all the gory details of their troubled relationship. It feels practically invasive, as though you are an uninvited spectator bearing witness to the most intimate moments of life, death, and everything in between. And that’s the essence of folk music, right?

The difference with Carrie & Lowell is that it isn’t someone else’s pain, as is often the case with ancient folk songs passed down from past generations through newer artists. This is the trauma of one man, laid bare for you to partake in. None of that would matter if the music weren’t great. Fortunately for us, it IS. If you set aside the lyrics and just studied the melodies and harmonies contained within, you would still find this album to be a masterpiece. To me, it sets a new standard for folk music. It’s an easy choice for the album of the decade in my book.

Honorable Mentions: 13-24, in no particular order.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
The Black Keys – Brothers (2010)

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (2011)
The Highwomen – The Highwomen (2019)
I’m With Her – See You Around (2018)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (2017)

John Mayer – Born and Raised (2014)
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)

Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands (2015)
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (2014)

Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (2015)
Ray LaMontagne – God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (2010)

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Success

I woke up early this morning, as is often the case on weekdays. I’m a morning person at heart, with a job that has me working nights and weekends. On my days off, I start reaching for that first cup of coffee a little earlier. Today, I found myself pondering the idea of success; what it means in general, and specifically, how it relates to my line of work. I make my living from music, and there seems to be a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be successful in that arena.

That leads to a lot of questions along these lines. “Why don’t you try out for The Voice?” “Why do you live in Indiana? Have you thought about moving to Nashville or Austin?” “Have you ever tried to get signed to a record label?” “Can you really make a living at this?” Whenever I get asked about things like that, I know that it comes from an innocent place. Most people don’t know the music business, and that’s okay! I think it’s fair to say that success in music is most commonly defined as fame and fortune. Radio airplay, and sold-out shows. Tour buses, backing bands, and groupies. There are three interesting things about this particular kind of “success.”

  1. It’s only available to a minuscule portion of the music biz. 99% of people making a living from music are normal folks like you and me, working in a field that just happens to be understood less than others. Unseen are the middle-class independent musicians, the songwriters, people working in publishing offices, studio guitarists, orchestra violinists, etc. Equating being a pop-star with being a musician is kind of like thinking that working in IT means you’ll become Bill Gates.
  2. Those who do achieve it are often unhappy. I don’t think human beings are meant to be famous. The isolation that comes from that type of lifestyle often leads to depression, addiction, and a downward spiral that we’re all too used to hearing about.
  3. It doesn’t last. Unless you go in as a savvy businessperson, the majority of profits from that kind of success go to the record label. The glitz and glamour of fame is a bit of an artificial creation, and the trappings that go along with it are often supplied on the label’s dime. Only the musicians who were able to negotiate to retain their publishing rights achieve the kind of wealth we associate with stardom. Otherwise, they probably aren’t doing much better than the rest of us. When your 15 minutes of fame are over, it’s back to the real world.

All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. If what others view as achieving success isn’t the goal, then what am I working towards? For me, success means doing your best. It’s that simple.

It means trying your hardest to create great music. It means establishing good relationships on the business side of things. It means paying the bills and providing for your family. For me, it means traveling on the road to play music for people all over America and beyond. For others, it may not. It should always mean treating people with kindness and integrity, the way you would want to be treated. In my case, it’s my wife, our dog, an Indiana small town, a little blue house, our church, and our friends and family.

I’ve been making a good living from music for 8 years, and that is thanks entirely to the AMAZING people who support me. From the music-lovers who buy the CDs and put money in the tip jar, to the venue owners who pay my salary, to the people that start out in the audience and end up as lifelong friends. I LOVE my job, especially now that I get to sing and travel with my wife. I hope the only thing that changes with time is that we get to play music for more people, and in more venues where people come to listen to music. That’s it.

If you asked me to nail down an example of what success really looks like, it’s the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. Josh, Breezy, and Max play great music with integrity, and they travel the world doing it. When they come back home, it’s to a cabin in Brown County, Indiana. They love their community, and they rep it everywhere they go. If you don’t believe me, just watch this video.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve found ourselves crossing paths with this band at venues from the Telluride Blues Festival to Australia. But back when I was just starting out, only 18 or 19 years old, I went to see this band play a show in a record shop in Cincinnati. I didn’t know much of anything about how to make a living in music, so afterwards, I went up to the Rev himself and asked if he had any advice for someone just starting out in the business. He didn’t have to, but he took 5 minutes to talk to a kid about his journey and give some pointers. The advice boiled down to this; work hard, keep grinding, and don’t compromise who you are.

It may not fit the standard definition, but that’s how I define success. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll keep doing it ’til we’re singing in heaven.

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What Killed the Music Biz?

Apple recently announced that it is shutting down iTunes (for Mac users) and focusing support on Apple Music. The reasoning is simple; most people don’t actually purchase music anymore, and the idea of an iTunes library has become antiquated. This has brought about another round of complaints from all over the music world about how streaming services have ruined everything for artists and labels. All the sales numbers are in the tank, and people are wondering where we’re headed, and what to blame. The answers might surprise you.


I recently read a fascinating article about the origins of Smooth, the smash hit song by Santana and Rob Thomas that dominated radio in 1999 and 2000. Take ten minutes and read it if you want to understand the inner workings of the “old” music biz. The sheer amount of moving parts, executives, money, and time that it took to get that record made and to make it into a hit is INCREDIBLE. And make no mistake, that song is not an outlier. A little research will reveal that many of the great songs and albums of yesteryear involved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars spent on studio time, production costs, legal fees, promotion, etc.

The transaction was clear and simple. The decision makers at the label invested that money into artists and songs that they believed in because the potential returns were so high. Santana’s Supernatural sold 30 million copies. According to this article, record companies usually retain around 63% of the money from physical record sales. At $10 per copy, that would mean the label brought in a cool $189 million.

Fast forward twenty years, and sales of music are a tiny percentage of what they once were. People aren’t even buying downloads anymore, which is why Apple is moving away from iTunes. This Forbes article estimates that an album would need to have 8.5 billion streams to generate revenue equivalent to 9 million physical sales.


People wonder why commercial music has gotten so bad, and the answer is very simple. If record labels can’t expect to get a large return from investing in artists, they aren’t going to do it. That’s why commercial country music is just a revolving door of bros in baseball caps, and why pop music is filled with random people mumbling over the same trap beat on every song. They are focus-grouped faces plucked from obscurity, putting out pandering drivel aimed at grabbing whatever bucks are available. Great art is too expensive to make when you can’t make money off of it.

This has led to a steep rise in the number of independent artists. It used to be that if you were a burgeoning artist and entertainer, full of talent and ambition and something to say, you’d go to LA or NYC or Nashville, and you’d try like hell to get a record deal and break into the industry. Now, it’s a different story. Radio music has become so low budget and formulaic that there isn’t much room for anything outside of that formula.

If you are a true lover of music, that’s good news, because the number of high quality artists out there is staggering. The sea change in the industry has given voice to the formerly voiceless. Can you ever imagine someone like John Moreland or Reverend Peyton on the radio? Hell no! But thanks to the advancement of technology, and the way that the music business has fractured, the framework exists for them to be heard. That’s GREAT. But as Sturgill Simpson sings, it ain’t all flowers.


Sometimes, you’ve gotta feel the thorns. Jason Isbell recently tweeted, “Funny how news outlets still say ‘touring to promote their latest album,’ when in fact it should now be ‘touring to promote their survival.’

By and large, people have stopped buying music. And that means the only way to make money is from playing shows. According to Nielsen, concert attendance is up. But I think the really interesting statistic in that piece is this; 23 percent of concert-goers purchase artist merchandise on-site, while 19 percent buy new music. That article was profiling big venues and shows, but I’d say those numbers are dead on for our shows too. It isn’t just Spotify and Apple Music to blame; the realities of the New American Economy are impacting this, because 78% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck.

Interesting how that dovetails with those other numbers, isn’t it? Folks might have enough money to go out to a show every now and then, but probably not enough to buy music or merch. We’re the same way; we listen to Spotify all the time. Yes, because it’s extremely convenient, but also because we simply can’t afford to actually purchase dozens of albums.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? The music business has really followed the EXACT same arc as the rest of the economy. Globalization and massive technological advancements have caused a huge shift, which has made the music world better and created opportunities for those who didn’t have them before. However, on individual level, it’s difficult to earn a fair, living wage.


Blaming streaming services for how things are is the equivalent of blaming immigrants for the lack of good paying jobs. If we want to progress, we have to understand where we are, and start moving forward accordingly. Shaking your fist and wishing for the old days is a pointless exercise, because just like all of those rust belt factories, record sales and the old music business aren’t coming back. As in everything throughout history, the people who succeed will be the ones who figure out how to adapt.

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The Real Thing

As I get older, I find myself withdrawing more and more from popular music. I know that I’m far from alone there, but I can’t do it. With the exception of a small handful of artists like Chris Stapleton, (and God BLESS Chris Stapleton) all the music that I love comes from independent/largely unknown artists.

There is a thick facade on the commercial releases that immediately betrays them as something less than honest. When I hear the programmed drum loops and auto-tuned vocals that have taken over all popular music, it becomes difficult to focus on the lyrics or the emotion of the song. And truth be told, most of the time, the tracks just consist of grade-school level cliches.

I continue to be amazed by the sheer number of people who have never been exposed to great music. Over the years, I’ve had a number of artists that I “quiz” the audience about at shows. “Have you ever heard of…” Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Amanda Shires, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Jason Isbell, and so on. These are Grammy winning artists, and in the case of Van Zandt and Prine, absolute legends. But I would estimate that only about 5 or 10% of folks we play for have ever heard of them. Instead, we get asked to play Bon Jovi or Drake or Luke Bryan. THE HITS. PLAY THE HITS!

I love a good dance song or an all-time anthem as much as anybody. But there has to be more to life, right? When I’m telling stories about music history or the artists I love on stage, I often feel like I’m the proverbial Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. The music that my wife and I listen to is raw, and pure, and full of expression and inspiration. You feel as if you’re looking straight into the soul of the singer, and you feel their joy, or pain, or gratitude, or anger, tenfold.

As long as music as real as this is out there, I’m not going to listen to commercial radio. I’m not even sorry, to tell you the truth. The neighborhood kids can be on my lawn all they want, as long as I get to pick the music.

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What happened to women in country music?

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is 80’s and 90’s country music. Maybe it’s partially because of all the time I spent listening to it as a kid, (while riding around with my dad in his old Ford pickup truck, naturally) but if I find some classic country on the radio dial, I’m guaranteed to stop on it every time. Recently, I’ve found that all sorts of other artists share the same affinity for it. One of my favorite bluesmen, Josh Peyton of the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, said in a recent interview that it’s his favorite kind of music to listen to.

Along with all of the nostalgia and good vibes, there is also a sense of sadness and curiosity that comes with listening to country music from this time period. Namely, what the hell happened? Mainstream country in 2019 bears little-to-no resemblance to the music of 1989. Musically, the focus has shifted from melody and harmony to so called “tractor rap” and big, loud guitar riffs. Most notably, women have gone from being the bedrock of the genre to seemingly existing only for objectification.

A recent Washington Post article shared some sobering statistics; for instance, there more than FIVE male artists for every female artist on country radio. At the most recent ACM Awards, it was more than two and a half hours into the ceremony before a female artist (Kacey Musgraves) won an award. There were no women nominated for entertainer of the year, which is incomprehensible if you grew up when I did. I can easily name ten great female artists from 90’s country radio, just off the top of my head. Patty Loveless, Roseanne Cash, Martina McBride, Kathy Mattea. Reba McEntire, Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Terri Clark, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss…you get the point.

The idea that there is now a 5:1 ratio of men to women on the radio is offensive, but so is the way that women are portrayed in modern country music. As Maddie and Tae pointed out, being the girl in a country song is no picnic. Treating women as objects goes against every fiber of my being. You find it in just about every country song now, but 80’s and 90’s country had an entirely different tone. The overwhelming majority of the time, women were portrayed as strong and independent figures. Many songs by male artists from would find the protagonist asking for forgiveness, accepting responsibility for mistakes, and asking the woman to grant him another chance. Love songs, like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, pledge devotion to women, and offer a promise of accountability. Note that in these songs, the woman has the power. She is to be treated with respect, not as an object. When Luke Bryan commands a “country girl” to “shake it for me”, it’s more than just a bad song, it’s a troubling ideological shift.

The correct narrative when it comes to sexism and abuse is that men have combined decades of entitlement and excuse making with power. One only has to look at someone like Harvey Weinstein or Ryan Adams to see how ugly that combination can be. The strides that are being made for women’s rights and with the #metoo movement are necessary, and long overdue. But I think that something frequently missed in the conversation is how decidedly modern cultural sexism is. The literal objectification of women in everyday pop culture, especially country music, feels decidedly recent to me, and that’s really what I’m talking about here.

I grew up in Indiana, and the way women have been represented and treated in the media climate in recent years simply doesn’t align with how I was raised. There was no mistaking the expectations in the house I grew up in; you were to respect women, or face the consequences. I’m not saying that my childhood is representative of the entire heartland, but that same mindset and ideology is what I hear in country music of the time. When close to half of the songs I heard on the radio were by women, and when many of the other half were sung by contrite men apologizing to strong women, it helped to carry forward that same expectation set by my parents. My mom is a college graduate and a registered nurse. She believed she could accomplish anything, and did.

I’m not sure what prompted this unhealthy change in country music, but it’s disheartening, to say the least. Modern country artists, producers, and executives should be embarrassed, and pressure is mounting. It’s up to us to make sure that lyrics like this no longer describe the norm.

Bein’ the girl in a country song

How in the world did it go so wrong?

Like all we’re good for is lookin’ good for

You and your friends on the weekend, nothin’ more

We used to get a little respect

Now we’re lucky if we even get

To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along

And be the girl in a country song

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On Exclusion and Love

Let me start by admitting that the world doesn’t need another opinion on what just happened at the United Methodist General Conference. With so many people hurting over this situation, it’s tough to know just what to say. I believe that most Methodists in America are hurting, no matter which plan they supported, and I have no interest in piling on further layers of accusations or anger. The headlines this week have reminded me of a dark time in my own faith, and that’s why I’m writing this.

As someone who grew up around an overwhelmingly traditional Christian culture, I always wondered; how could the actions and beliefs of some who claim to love Christ be SO different from what Christ actually taught? I struggled to wrap my head around it for many years, to the point of leaving the faith entirely. It was only after I learned to separate Christianity from Christ that I was able to regain my spiritual strength.

It took me several years after some bad church experiences to realize that it wasn’t fair for me to view ALL churches in a bad light. I’d been “stung by the church bee” and it was difficult to recover. Thankfully, I found a great congregation (First Christian Church in Richmond, IN) to help me move past that. After the events of this week, I fear that many others have been stung, and in a much more painful way.

Certain Christians seem to want to exclude so many, from the LGBT community, to immigrants, to anyone who doesn’t share their particular point of view, left or right. Isn’t it fair to wonder if that might have something to do with the declining numbers in churches all across America? I don’t claim to be a theological expert, but I firmly believe that Christ commands us to love. One of the core beliefs in the Disciples of Christ is the idea that everyone is welcome, in worship and at the communion table.

If we could all learn to love a bit more readily, and point the finger of anger and judgment a little less often, I think the world would be a better place. I hope we can learn to do a better job of making room at the table.

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