Back At It
Son Volt last Tuesday. Eric Church on Saturday. Two contrasting careers. Two different approaches. Frankly put, two legends. And one thing both pasionately care about above all else- the music.
Lately, I’ve felt frustated with music. I kind of explained it on Twitter. But for the most part, it was a slow build-up of various things. The “Old Town Road” garbage. A complete lack of respect for traditional country music. Mainstream pop culture using country music as a punching bag. A disinteresting and boring ACM Awards back in early April. An East Nashville music community willing to throw stones at mainstream country music but failing to actually make an effort to change things. A mainstream country music community filled with great people who unfortunately don’t record great music.
But I’m past that. I wallowed long enough. And you know what? It doesn’t matter what people think of country music. It’ll always be here. Much like baseball, people can try to change it. Try to make it fit with the times. But the roots are strong and will always remain. Call it uncool. Call it boring. Call it whatever you want. But there will always be people like me carrying the flag for country music and its history. We aren’t going anywhere.
It is funny how things work out. As my frustration with the music community grew and grew, a week steadily approached where I would see Son Volt and Eric Church in the same week. Son Volt, led by one of my favorite songwriters Jay Farrar. And Eric Church, as you all probably know by now- my all-time favorite artist, and the man whose music has meant the most to me. There had to be a reason for that. It almost like a sign saying, “you’re frustrated with music? Okay, here’s a week in which you’ll see two of your favorite artists. Listen to them and try to say you’re still frustrated with music.” Now, as I sit here writing this with a tin cup of Old Crow whiskey by my side giving me a slow burn, I can look out through this rainy window on a Sunday and be at peace with how music, for the millionth time in my life, has moved me beyond words.
The first show was the Jay Farrar-led Son Volt on Tuesday at Mr. Smalls (ironically where I first saw Eric Church in 2009). Those that have followed me for a while know how much I appreciate Jay Farrar’s songwriting and artistry. Simply put, there would be no Americana or alt-country world at the level it is today without the songs of Uncle Tupelo, later Son Volt, and more specifically Jay Farrar. Uncle Tupelo almost single-handedly created alternative country, no matter how much Jeff Tweedy continually tries to downplay its legacy. Farrar, on the other hand, doesn’t speak much about well, anything. He lets the music do the talking. And maybe that’s why I’ve always fallen into the Farrar camp when Wilco (Tweedy’s band) and Son Volt are unavoidably compared. But does Farrar really need to speak when he can write and record songs like this?
Farrar played “Windfall” near the end of his set on Tuesday, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have goosebumps from the first couple strums of the guitar to the end of the beautiful song. Honestly, if someone told me to name a top-ten song of all-time, in any genre, “Windfall” would be one of the first to come to mind. From the poetic lyrics to the subtle reminder of the past to the lonesome fiddle, “Windfall” is everything that’s *right* about music.
Indeed, Son Volt’s whole set was filled with special moments. On more than one occasion, I found myself thinking about the incredible songs Farrar had written and his rich legacy. I truly was watching a legend who has influenced so many greats, from Old 97s to Jason Isbell.
But Son Volt isn’t just a legacy act. Farrar has gathered possibily one of the best groups of musicians yet for the latest incarnation of the band and just released their new album Union in March. It’s a firery rebuke to the current political environment, and though I can’t say I agree with every single thing he’s singing about, I deeply respect Farrar’s beliefs and the way he makes his point without resorting to name-calling or insults. And furthermore, Farrar has been taking these stands long before Trump’s America. Just listen to “Moonshiner” from way back in 1992. Farrar included many of Son Volt’s new songs in the set and delivered each with the thoughtfulness and conviction the songs deserved.
May the wind take your troubles away…indeed.
Next up was a trip to Church at PPG Paints Arena on a Satuday night in Pittsburgh. The artist I’ve seen grow. The artist I first met upon the release of his debut album Sinners Like Me in 2006. The artist I saw for a small crowd of about 300 in 2009 when I was 15 and he could only get booked at rock clubs. The artist I subsequently saw play arena shows to massive crowds on The Outsiders World Tour and the Holdin’ My Own Tour. He’s not someone I use for clicks (hi, Whiskey Riff!). He’s not someone I’ve only recently come to appreciate as an alternative to what’s playing on mainstream country radio. He’s my artist. The one whose songs I grew up with. I’m one of the select few who has been there since the beginning, and I have no problem bragging about it. That’s something you can’t take away.
It’s awesome how Chief’s fanbase has grown. After all, the growing fanbase, bigger album sales, and sellout shows have enabled Church to continue recording the kind of music he’s always wanted. But it also makes me become a little reflective. I remember the first time I saw him. Every single person in the crowd held up one of their boots during “These Boots.” It was one of the biggest and most special moments of the show. With each show, however, less and less people hold up their boots. Sadly, it seems many of the newer fans are failing to appreciate Sinners Like Me and how that album impacted country music. Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but I think there’s something to it.
As for the live show itself, Chief only gets better with age. He blew the roof off Pittsburgh once again. The Steel City holds a special place in the heart of Eric Church and his fans, and he never leaves the city without voicing his thanks for what Pittsburgh has done for his career. The Springsteen melody during “Mistress Named Music” (which included “Born In The USA,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “My Hometown,” “Born To Run,” “Glory Days,” and “Thunder Road”) was masterfully done, and Chief’s cover of “Atlantic City,” though more along the lines of the Band’s version than Bruce’s original, was poignant and relevant to today’s world.
Some of the best moments of the show included a rousing rendition of “Desperate Man,” “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Drink In My Hand,” “Knives of New Orleans,” and, of course, the great “Springsteen.” Naturally, some of my favorite moments were the older album cuts. “These Boots,” as I already mentioned, is Chief’s all-time greatest song and the one that will always resonate the most with the die-hards. And “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” “Livin’ Part of Life,” and “Sinners Like Me” were all noticeably well-recieved by the long-time fans. “Sinners Like Me” in particular provided a somber moment as Chief switched up the first verse to include a tribute to his deceased brother (who also co-wrote “How ‘Bout You” and “Without You Here”).
If a night at an Eric Church can’t cure someone of their musical malaise, I don’t think there’s a solution that exists that can. He gives the audience every ounce of everthing he has. From 8:35 when the show started to 12:04 when the walked off the stage for the final time of the night, Chief left it all out there.
We’re still waving that flag around here…
It’s been a tough time lately for music and me. A lot of crap surrounding the industry that I can’t control really just put me in a little bit of a rut. But that’s nothing some Jay Farrar songs and an Eric Church show can’t cure. It’s easy to lose sight of the music. We can get so caught up in debate and definitions that we forget why we’re talking about music in the first place. We listen to music to be moved. To feel something. You know what? Not just to feel something…I mean to feel something deep in our souls. It can bring us to tears. Make us call an old friend. Get your parents on the phone. Music heals. Music soothes. Music makes us want to dance. To remember. To get rowdy and put a couple beers back. It exists for all that. And that’s why I’m back.