Wintertime Tour: Week Five – It’s All About Love

Hey everyone! Once again, 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. Here’s where we’ve been in the last week or so.

Stop #1: Sedona, AZ

In my last post, I talked about the awesome musicians we met at Fiddler’s Dream, Christy Fisher and Tina Reichow. They are such sweet people, and they were kind enough to spread the word about our next show to their friends and fans. So, when we showed up at Vino Di Sedona, there was a great crowd waiting for us! We are really thankful for our new friends. Vino is a pretty special place; it has fantastic views of the Red Rocks from the patio, a cozy indoor space for wintertime shows, and it’s one of just a handful of places that legitimately host music 7 nights a week.

The owner, Rebecca, has been very supportive of us over the years, and we really appreciate that. The staff is a lot of fun too! If you’re ever passing through Sedona, it’s definitely the place to go.

Stop #2: Cave Creek, AZ

Speaking of venues that really support music, Janey’s also sits high atop that list. Tucked into a corner of Cave Creek, a funky little town on the north side of Maricopa County, you’ll find this magical coffeeshop and bodega. And like Vino Di Sedona, you’ll find music seven nights a week!


Owner/manager Julian has grown something really special here. The crowd is a fun mix of locals, snowbirds, and tourists; we even met a guy from Connersville, Indiana at our show! That’s only 8 miles south of where I grew up. We really love playing Janey’s, and we have to thank our friends Quint and Nancy for turning us onto the place.

Stop #3: Camp Verde+Flagstaff

Up to this point, we’d been staying at our friends house in Scottsdale. But we had to bring Alf the camper back out for a night, as we had two shows up the hill in North-Central AZ. We decided to camp in the Verde Valley and drive from there to our gig in Flagstaff, as it was about 20 degrees warmer at the lower elevation of Camp Verde. (Flagstaff gets over 100 inches of snow a year.) I can’t say enough good things about the Verde River RV Resort, which had a full mini-golf course, a clubhouse, rec room, and even saunas!


Our Valentine’s Night gig was at Historic Brewing’s Barrel+Bottle House. It was the perfect place for us to play on Valentine’s, a space full of families, couples of all ages, and groups of friends out for a drink or a delicious dinner. Do not miss this place if you’re in Flag! I recommend the Arizona Bowl with a fried egg.

Stop #4: Chino Valley, AZ

The next place is an old friend of ours. I’ve been playing at Granite Creek Vineyards since 2015, and Molly and I have come to love it. The atmosphere, staff, and audience are always top-notch. It’s also a peacock preserve, so there are often colorful spectators in the crowd!


We had a couple tables full of Indiana people in the crowd, and dozens of music lovers that made our afternoon absolutely magical. What more could you ask for?

Stop #5: Queen Creek, AZ

What a week of shows this was! Had it ended in Chino Valley, that would have been great enough. But we had to cap it off with one of the best shows of the whole dang tour. Outdoors, at the Queen Creek Olive Mill, on a 70 degree day. We set up under a tent in the middle of things, literally between the patio/dining area and an art show.

For four hours, we had a steady stream of dancing kids, picture-takers, clappers, and joyful people to give us energy for our songs. It was the biggest crowd I’ve seen to date at the Olive Mill, and it was a great time had by all, especially us. We even got to finish out our afternoon there with affogato, the delightful Italian combination of espresso and vanilla gelato. It was a perfect day.

Bonus Stop: Fountain Hills, AZ

In between all of these gigs, we spent almost every late morning/early afternoon hanging out in Fountain Hills. I’ve come to love this little town for a few reasons, one being that it has the best dog park we’ve encountered in our travels. It also has a great little hike through a botanical garden, and of course, one of the largest fountains in the world.

I really like the people too, a mix of Midwestern snowbirds and local folks that all seem to love art and music and good food and dogs. And that’s the thing; in all of our travels, we meet great people, wherever we go. There is so much love and goodness and joy in the world, and we just want to spread that around. The portrait of America painted by cable news channels and by Facebook memes and ads is an ugly one, filled with division and conflict and hatred. The actual reality is so far from that! If we can put down our phones for more than five minutes and make some human connections, the contrast becomes apparent.

The next time you start losing hope in the world, or you start feeling like we’re more divided than we’ve ever been, go for a walk or a drive. Find a town square, or a park. Go for a hike. Sit down at a coffeeshop, or find some live music. I honestly believe that what you’ll find the vast majority of the time are good people, trying to do the best they can for the ones they love. And that’s what it’s all about.

Choose love.

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Wintertime Tour: Week Four – An Attitude of Gratitude

Hey everyone! Once again, 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. Here’s where we’ve been in the last week or so.

Stop #1: Wichita Falls, TX

If you’ll recall, our last stop in the previous post was Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Our next scheduled gig was in Albuquerque, and we had a couple of days to get ourselves across the country. We set our sights on Wichita Falls as a stopping point, with one specific goal in mind. Watch the Super Bowl, of course! My Christmas gift from Molly was a TV for the camper, and it has been a great source of entertainment on this tour. We set up camp at the Wichita Falls RV Park, just in time for the big game and a spectacular sunset.

Temps were in the upper 70’s when we hit town, but a massive winter storm was looming, with a Winter Storm Watch in effect. We hightailed it out of town with our sights set on Albuquerque. Fortunately (or unfortunately for my wallet), our route took us through Childress, TX. This tiny Texas town is home to a Justin Factory Store, which might as well have been paradise for this boot-wearing guy. I have a pretty peculiar boot size, and they had more options in my size than I could have ever imagined. They also allowed us to bring our dog, Charlie, in with us, so we spent a good hour or so scoping out all of the options. At the very end, I spied a box on a shelf, and within was this little square-toed slice of perfection.


With boot shopping complete, we drove on through some strong crosswinds to the Land of Enchantment.

Stop #2: Bernalillo, NM

We arrived just after sunset, but we were able to get checked into our campsite with relative ease. Bernalillo is a bustling little town about 25 minutes north of Albuquerque proper, and the Coronado Campground is perched atop a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. It’s also next door to the Kuaua Ruins, remnants of one of the largest Pueblo Indian communities in the Southwest. The settlement dates back to around 1300, and Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado first visited in 1540. To think of what was happening hundreds of years ago in the very place we slept was humbling.


Remember that winter storm? It only grazed us in New Mexico, but we still woke up to bitter cold and a bunch of fluffy white flakes falling from the sky! We purchased a Mr. Buddy propane heater after a 20 degree night earlier in the tour, and that proved to be an excellent purchase. We were able to keep our little Aliner totally warm and toasty during windchills that got down towards the 0 degree mark. The payoff was a breathtaking view as the fog and clouds lifted in the afternoon.



Winter camping has its perks.

Stop #3: Corrales, NM

We stayed at the Coronado Campground for four nights, so the next few stops will be about the venues we played. The first was the Corrales Bistro Brewery, a warm and homey place tucked into a village of 5,000. There is something magical about this little town, wedged in between Rio Rancho and Albuquerque. The sprawl of Starbucks and Walmart superstores hasn’t made it here, and the result is a sort of old Southwest charm.

Speaking of Southwest, that is a burger in a tortilla, smothered in green chile on the inside. New Mexican cuisine is great, you guys! So was the crowd that night, which was a total listening audience. It was almost like a house concert at times, and we were so grateful for the brave souls that ventured out into the cold to come hear our hippie songs and John Prine covers.

Stop #4: Santa Fe, NM

Up the road a spell is that most famous of towns, sunny Santa Fe. We had a gig at a really funky little spot called the Cowgirl. I knew when I walked up that it was our kind of place.


The place was just oozing with charm and character. We really had a fun gig, but the best part was the nachos. Some places that claim to have nachos should be EMBARRASSED to even try to put themselves in the same category as the Cowgirl. They come with brisket, for goodness sakes. Enough said!


Stop #5: Nob Hill

Every city has a hip, vibey part of town. In Indianapolis, it’s Broad Ripple. Cincinnati has Over-the-Rhine. In Albuquerque, it’s Nob Hill, a stretch of Route 66 a couple of miles from downtown. The first show I ever played out here was at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro all the way back in 2014, and they have been gracious enough to keep booking us whenever we come through. The shows take place in their cellar bar, a fun and funky little space.



I really enjoy playing there. We almost always meet interesting people, and Zinc really treats their musicians well. On this occasion, we got to dine on some outrageously good beef tacos. Check out Zinc whenever you come through ABQ, and I promise you won’t regret it!


Stop #6: Phoenix, AZ

So we loaded up the truck and we moved to…Arizona! We have some truly great friends who have become family here, and Quint and Nancy are gracious enough to let us stay at their house whenever we come to town. They had the distinction of being the guests who traveled the furthest to attend our wedding, if that gives you any idea. We’re blessed with some really great people in our lives, and these two are some of the absolute best. Anyone who would let us unload this amount of stuff into their house deserves some credit!


Our first show in AZ was at a new venue for us, Fiddler’s Dream. I love the eclectic spaces we’ve been encountering on this tour, and this was no exception! It’s a little outbuilding on the property of a Quaker church, and it’s a completely volunteer run venue.

I mentioned that our show at Corrales Bistro Brewery had a house concert feel. Well, this WAS a house concert. Chairs wrapped tightly around the stage area, and a totally unplugged format. No speakers, no mics, just acoustic guitars and voices. This is my favorite type of show, and Fiddler’s Dream did not disappoint. We had a wonderful audience, and we got to share the stage with a couple of great musicians from Jerome, Christy Fisher and her friend Tina on percussion. They were absolutely phenomenal!


Touring is a whole bunch of things packed into a bundle. It’s exciting, exhausting, expensive, and rewarding all at once. This week was a great example; we came into these four shows tired. Just plain tired in a physical sense, from fighting a nasty cold that we both ended up catching and the cold outside. But the emotional lift from playing music we love for people who love music, and the connections and new friendships that come with that, is enough to make us forget all about the other stuff.

I’m just so grateful for what we get to do. Thanks to all who make it possible.

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Wintertime Tour: Weeks Two/Three – More Mid-South

Hey y’all! Once again, 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. Just wanted to update you on our last couple of weeks!

Stop #1: Franklin, TN

Picking up where we left off in the first post, we were fortunate to be able to spend several days with Molly’s sister Katie, her husband Josh, and their three wonderful kids. They are some of my favorite people, and it was really nice to spend some time in Franklin. Charlie enjoyed it too.

I haven’t gotten to be much of an uncle for my sister’s kids; for one thing, I was still just a kid myself when they were born, and for another, we’ve always been so far away from each other. (They live in Florida.) Being able to spend time with nieces and nephews and be “Unca Bunca” is really meaningful. I’m also very thankful for the hospitality of Katie and Josh. But, I’m sure y’all didn’t come here to read my sentimental thoughts on family!

It is worth noting that we were able to make a stop at my favorite of the Nashville hot chicken establishments, Hattie B’s. It’s legit, trust me.

Stop #2: Jonesboro, AR

Bellies and hearts full, we packed up the truck and trailer, waved goodbye to Tennessee, and headed onto our next stop! Jonesboro is a college town in NE Arkansas, and it has a really cool vibe. We stayed at a secluded little campground in Craighead Forest Park, just far enough outside of town to be peaceful.

Our venue was a funky little Irish pub called Cregeens, and it really did have a straight-from Ireland vibe. We had a very warm and welcoming crowd, and the Bangers and Mash were top notch! Can’t wait to go back.

Stop #3: Greers Ferry, AR

Speaking of family, we have some relatives in Arkansas that we didn’t know were relatives until the last time we came down! Kevin and Lee Ann Wallen are the kind of people you want to have in your family, for a lot of reasons. They were kind enough to hook us up with a place to stay and a gig at their church. If you’ve never been, Greers Ferry is an incredibly beautiful place.

Our weekend started with a gig at a small golf club bar called Bogies, and it ended with an afternoon concert at Holiday Hills United Methodist Church. You’d be hard pressed to find more generous and genuine people, and we’re very grateful that we got to sing some our favorite songs for them. ♥️

Stop #4: Memphis, TN

Friends and family are a recurring theme here. We headed to Memphis, not to play a show or to compete in the International Blues Challenge, but to spend a few days with some of our best friends. Steve, Brenda, Tom, and Catrina made the trip down from Metamora to rendezvous with us for some Beale Street shenanigans. I got a new hat at Lansky Brothers! We went thrift shopping! And most importantly, we got to watch Catrina play a showcase at the world famous B.B. King’s with the Chuck Brisbin Trio. Our friends are really like family to us.

We also found a great coffeeshop in a Memphis neighborhood called “The Pinch”, so named because it was cut off from the rest of downtown by the construction of an Interstate bridge. Comeback Coffee really impressed me, and it’s worth stopping there if you need some quality espresso.

Stop #5: Tuscaloosa, AL

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I really, really love the South. The fact that you might walk into a brewery and find massive chalkboard art of Alabama football heroes in the style of a Jason Isbell album cover is a great example of why.

I knew it would be a great night as soon as I saw that. And sure enough, it was. Total listening crowd, and a tasty Pilsner! Druid City Brewing is really worth your time, and we enjoyed every minute of our show there.

Stop #6: Florence, AL

How cool is it that our next stop would be the hometown of Jason Isbell? Across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, you’ll find a basement venue with one of the coolest names, The Boiler Room. It’s a combination bar, bowling alley, and music venue. Badass. We actually had a couple drive all the way from Corinth, MS to Florence and spend the night there just to see us play. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. Not to sound like a broken record, but we loved the Boiler Room.

Stop #7: Arkadelphia, AR

Our last stop of this leg was back in Arkansas, in a little college town called Arkadelphia. We found out that there are two universities, Henderson State and Ouchita Baptist, that are literally across the street from each other. The rivalry is a different level of intense. Our campground, JB’s, was about a half-hour up the road, and it came complete with goats and an ass. Not kidding!

Our show was downtown at Slim & Shorty’s, a place with an island sort of feel. We dined like kings and queens on steak and vanilla cheesecake! The crowd was small, but awesome to play for. We met a couple who had traveled to many of the same Colorado mountain towns as us, and we met a metal musician with a big-time appreciation for bluegrass, to name a few.

It was hard to leave the South. It’s been so good to play venue after venue full of Prine and Isbell lovers, blues aficionados, and bluegrass diehards. The UP and Indiana have become very special to me for spiritual and community-based reasons, as has Colorado because of its beautiful mountains and towns.

I felt the same kind of connection throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, but it was driven by music. Blues, bluegrass and folk music are deep in the blood of the South, and it was an absolute privilege to play songs that are a part of that heritage. We’ll be back, and I can’t wait.

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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.


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!)


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.


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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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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