A Southern Music Roundup

I’ve recently been doing a lot of exploring of music that I haven’t necessarily touched on before, or that I have but I haven’t truly appreciated. We spend a lot of time listening to what’s popular on the radio, or longstanding popular music without exploring outside of our comfort zones. This can lead to a bit of monotony, but it is also such a tragic loss on our parts because there are so many phenomenal artists who are waiting to be discovered. I thought I’d share some of my recent finds that I’ve fallen in love with. I hope you find some that you enjoy as well.

Sturgill Simpson

image: SturgillSimpson

How in the actual world did I miss Sturgill Simpson before now? A little bit of Waylon, a little bit of grit, and a little bit of croon, Simpson brings back a taste of classic country music style. His voice is something that’s been missing from country music for far too long. He joins a resurgence of outlaw style singers such as Chris Stapleton, Cody Jinks, Jason Isbell and Eric Church. What I like the most about Simpson’s music is how real it feels. I’ll be honest with you, I have a playlist on Spotify that is for MY music. It is the music that defines me and flows with my life, that I can’t skip over and can’t see myself without. When I initially started listening to Sturgill’s music, I found myself adding his music to that list one song after another within a short span of time, without feeling the need for multiple listens to decide. That’s rare for me. His music is about all of us, the average people working every day and living a real life. I love that. I mentioned Waylon before. Sturgill Simpson has a very similar tone and lilt in his voice, and the comparison hit me immediately when listening to him. What’s funny is this has apparently become something of a regular comparison. Perhaps a voice reborn.

Sturgill Simpson was born in Kentucky to an Appalachian environment that many people overlook. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy then you know the environment that I’m about to mention. Appalachia has a slower middle to low class white culture. By slower, I mean that their professions bring the early 1900’s to mind. Mining, digging, mechanics, vocational skills that are lost to many metropolitan or even mainstream cities. Before the past two years, I didn’t have even the simplest idea of how manual labor in mines worked or continued in the Southeastern United States. Appalachian culture is lost to most of us, overlooked and unnoticed. Its citizens, more often than not, continue in the slow paces of their homes, never exploring much further than where they are born. Simpson stems from this world that we glimpse past. His music reflects this in many ways, with its raw and gritty feeling and the familiar “guy next to you at the bar” lyrics and style to his music.

Simpson’s first Album, High Top Mountain, carries a very classic country feeling in songs like “Railroad of Sin”, “You can have the Crown” and “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”. But it is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that brought the comparison to classic artists to the table for me. “Turtles all the way down” carries that old crooning with easy music that I’ve always relaxed to on cool nights by a fire. “Living the Dream” is one of my favorite songs on this album:

“That old man upstairs, he wears a crooked smile
Staring down at the chaos he created
He said “son if you ain’t having fun just wait a little while
Momma’s gonna wash it all away
And she thinks Mercy’s overrated”

While it’s a little cynical, the song is so incredibly creative and it brings for the stark reality that living the dream isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Life is not always huge goals achieved, and all of us have day to day realities that don’t live up to what our expectations of life were. I can’t actually name one song on this ablum that I don’t really love for one reason or another!

I also have to take a moment to mention A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Simpson took on an entirely new feeling in his music with this album. I tend to keep the song “Breakers Roar” on repeat when I turn it on. It is a soft but defiant song about refusing to succumb to the painful points in life.
It is this defiance that some of us need in life, and the song itself is incredibly peaceful. Violins lift and fall through the song. To me, violins and cellos lend a raw emotional feeling to music, and this is a perfect example. It is this defiance that some of us need in life, and the song itself is incredibly peaceful. I think it is one of his best pieces. The album also includes “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, a dedication to Simpson’s newborn son, which of course made me sob and blubber. It is another beautiful, soft spoken song. Simpson’s cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” is another favorite of mine on this one. The twangy guitar, soft violin notes and bits of blues add a whole new feeling to the song. Simpson takes Cobain’s same view, of who are these people I’ve started playing for, and switches it to the Country genre. Who are these people who suddenly appreciate Country artists because now Country is cool? I’ll wrap him up by mentioning that “All Around You,” a soft mixture of Simpson’s crooning country voice and a somewhat Van Morrison instrument style is another soft but defiant compilation that I highly recommend for the tough days.

Leon Bridges

image: Jason Kim

Listen. It is quite fair to say that I am late to the Leon Bridges game, and I should be chastised for it. First of all, can I just talk about how stylish this guy is? Second of all, can I also talk about how much I love looking at images of him striking poses? Third of all, can I talk about how I really had not explored modern Soul and Jazz until I listened to some Leon Bridges? My first song I heard was “Bad Bad News”, which is a groove filled beat that is both jazz chill and beat filled enough to make you want to dance. This lead to an avalanche of exploration of him, followed by a larger avalanche of exploration of a genre that I have been sadly negligent in acknowledging. I love listening to his smooth voice. “Shy” comes to mind as one of the better displays of his range and tones. It is one of my relax and read songs. Let’s not forget to mention it’s a little bit sexy.

Leon Bridges claims Texan status, born in Fort Worth, but he is now a world traveler, playing internationally and boasting Grammy Nominations (his album Coming Home was nominated in the 58th Annual Grammy Awards) and songs that have been featured in TV shows. Worldwide traveler or not, his music sits comfortably with Southern Soul, Jazz and R&B. Further, his mother stems from New Orleans, which I imagine lends a heavy hand to his musical style and smoothly caressing voice.

I have a guilty pleasure confession.”Mrs.” is my absolute favorite Leon Bridges song. It is sexy. It is emotional. It is such a wonderful display of Bridges’ style and voice. Lord have mercy, you have to fan yourself after listening to it, but it is soft enough that it has also joined my playlist for calm reading nights.

Bridges’ first release, “Lisa Sawyer” is actually a dedication to his mother, and has a very 50’s vibe to it. I love the story he tells about his mother’s history, heritage and beautiful. “She had the complexion of, the complexion of a sweet praline,” is such a strongly definitive line.

My other favorite song, and one that has gained a lot of national attention, is “River”, a cry to God to enfold him back in His arms in Baptism or a rebirth. I love the confessional spirit in this song via the lines, “but there’s blood on my hands,/ and my lips aren’t clean.” It is a moment that allows us to relate to the artist, putting ourselves in the song. Who of us has clean hands or lips? And then his cry out to God. “Take me to your river,/ I wanna go.” A cry to take him home to his religion, to God. We don’t really get to experience artists being this straightforward about their religion and beliefs anymore because of the overwhelming level of social disapproval of artists displaying their personal beliefs. Songs like this let me relate to an artist on a more personal level. The insertion of a nearly gospel chorus that joins in the last half of the song brings in some of Bridges’ upbringing and heritage, which I also really love.

Citizen Cope

Photo: Eric Clapton

Roughly eight years ago, I was sitting in my room one night on the computer, adding posts to Pinterest, which I had recently discovered. A song came on that I had never heard before, and it struck me really hard. It struck me so hard that I listened to it several times a night for a few months. When I switched over to Spotify, I lost track of the song, and then again I randomly found it about four months ago. This song was “Let the Drummer Kick” by Citizen Cope. This song is such a poetic rendering of progressive thinking and what society has sort-of become. There is this group of words that encompasses some of the common hardships we see blasted across the media, incarceration, humiliation, non-inclusion, drug infusion, situation. I think that the majority of us can relate with at least one of these words at some point in our life. And they are countered by a group of words representing hope: creation, equation, retaliation, determination, inspiration. The words and feelings that keep us going. And that’s really a bit of what modern society has become. It is a kind of cycle of display of the hardships and this endless pursuit of overcoming and a refusal to give up. This song has stayed with me, and it really resonates with me on a deep level. I tend to play it a lot when I’m doing some deep thinking, when I’m writing and when I’m doing yoga.

Citizen Cope was born in Tennessee, and grew up in Texas and Mississippi. His music has moments of new age vibrations, blues and a kind of grungy mellow rock. His voice has a universal ability to cross over, which really helps listeners to relate to different facets of his music. He has recorded with Dido, Carlos Santana and Richie Havens. He really isn’t seen as much on the mainstream level, which rehashes my point at the beginning of this post, that there are just so many artists who have phenomenal work and really resonate on a deeper level with people when they finally are discovered. He is one of the artists that I have found a greater connection with by simply exploring outside of my normal musical comfort zone.

Citizen Cope recently released his first album in several years, titled Heroin and Helicopters. The first title on the album is “Duck Confit,” is a powerful speaking piece about the superficiality of society and the artificial fronts that people present to each other’s faces when they will just as soon move against the person next to them for the sake of getting ahead. It’s a powerful little poem song. The second song “Justice” is really a cool song to me, because it really speaks of enlightenment and the embrace of love as the true purpose in our lives. I could actually see this redone in collaboration with someone like Ziggy Marley, so Citizen Cope even has a tiny hint of that Raggae feeling in some of his songs, again crossing borders. “On My Love” is another somewhat enlightened little jam that tries to draw us from the focus of love as an answer, and to focus on the things that drive us, and to take personal responsibility for our personal happiness. The other two songs that I really liked on this album are “The River” and “Caribbean Skies” both of which have relaxing instrumentals, but which touch on some heavily controversial topics that are central in debates worldwide today. I’d highly recommend listening to them and finding your takeaway, because it will be a personal one.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones

Photo: David McClister

I found St. Paul & The Broken Bones via bouncing around on Spotify branching from a Garden and Gun playlist several months back, around the time that I discovered Leon Bridges and thus started exploring Soul more. The song that really turned me on with them was “Burning Rome,” a somewhat personal ballad focused on a return to religion. It is also a really strong exploration of Paul Janeway’s vocals, which is something I generally appreciate in artists. Testing the limits always turns me on to a musician. I enjoy the pushing of borders. Sometimes smooth, sometime rich and sometimes high and bold, Janeway’s voice covers all every spectrum.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones hails from Birmingham. I actually enjoy their style a lot. They embrace a combination of the dapper suits and suspenders that I really love currently, a little Blues Brothers black and white, and now and then Paul shows out in capes that have a Gospel Choir feeling, channeling a bit of Andre’ Leon Talley.

The group’s two main albums include Sea of Noise and Young Sick Camellia. Sea of Noise includes the personal ballad I noted above, “Midnight on Earth” which is an upbeat melody that takes me back to the 60’s, “I’ll be your woman,” a rather personal exploration of a struggled affair, “Sanctify,” which is another deeply personal exploration of what kind of life the singer wants to attain, a combination of highs and lows that he brings to life not only through the lyrics, but through the progressive move from soft and lilting to alive and loud with the full use of the band, and an ending mixed with both. To me though, Young Sick Camellia is the more personal of the two albums. The introduction “Cumulus pt. 1” takes us right to the starting point for the group with a beautiful piano introduction followed by a short audio that speaks of Georgia and Alabama in the relaxed and warm accent that makes us Southerners so welcoming to many. “GotitBad” comes to mind with it’s socially loaded lyrics about crime, lack of religion, and the falseness of society. “NASA” is a somewhat convoluted song about letting go (or rather the inability to do so) of.. unrequitted love? A love gone sour? Perhaps it is based on personal translation. The track that I am most intrigued by is “Hurricane,” a song that seems choked in sadness and nostalgia. It is almost a search for lost childhood, or a lost past. It is soft, and again Janeway explores his vocal ranges to wrap us in his words.

Adam Wakefield

Photo: Jeff Fasano

I actually found Adam’s music on a random Spotify playlist and fell in love with him couple of months ago. I just today became aware of his performances on The Voice, and I was going to introduce him to you as someone I’d compare to Chris Stapleton in style. And here he is with a cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” from The Voice which again Echos some of that lilting up and down that Chris Stapleton embraced in his own cover of the song. But let’s not focus on only that feature. Adam Wakefield is his own presence with his higher notes and raspy gruffness hiding under the surface as displayed in the live release of “When You’re Sober,” a quiet but powerful plea that we’ve all experienced in a struggling relationship. There is also the fast tempo rock feel in songs like “Waiting on the Thunder,” which gets me jamming in the morning, though it follows a similar feeling wanting to rebuild a love that seems to be smoldering, but needing to go about it correctly versus falling back into old habits.

Adam is a seasoned Nashville performer with an interesting background. Originally a pianist turned country artist performing on the voice, this guy didn’t start out crooning for us. Yet here he is throwing powerful vocals surrounded by electric guitar, keyboard, violins and banjos that seem to wrap his voice into themselves to blend all elements into these beautifully well written melodies. “Love is Blind” is one of my favorites in his 2017 release titled Adam Wakefield because it displays those powerful vocals on so many levels. When you listen to this and listen to his recordings from The Voice, the two aren’t even in the same league. He has really taken time to develop himself and build on his ranges. The third track on this album “Blame it On Me” is an emotional collapse against fighting that I think rings true to anyone that has been through some of the harder parts of relationships. It is both saddening and relieving in a way, because there are moments that we are all looking for that exit from continuous strain and upset. He really conveys this well in the song, and the guitar accents bring even more emotion to the song.

In 2018 we were graced with Gods & Ghosts, a more extensive and exploratory album that boasts a little old wold Country feeling in songs like “Cheap Whiskey & Bad Cocaine” which took me back to a little Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson feeling with its semi-questionable content, twanging guitar notes and nostalgic vibes. “Gods and Ghosts” itself is a bit of a confessional, a bit of an apology and very personal. The lyrics again remind me a little of Johnny Cash. The song itself actually felt a lot like listening to the softer songs put out by Jimmy Buffet. Think of “A Pirate Looks at Forty”. It has that same ebbing beat with soft instrumentals. The songs are both personal reflections as well, which is a neat way Adam has of tying in various styles. “Dry Day” actually made me think of Genesis’ “That’s All” in beat and melody style. Again, tying back to various influences, which is really cool for me when listening to him. I like seeing the different directions that his music comes from and/or reaches to.

Other songs on the album include “Good Morning Sunday,” another very personal feeling song that touches back to the world of alcoholism, but also on the moments when we remember to come back down to the appreciation of small moments, like the warmth of the sun on our skin. “River Stone” is my other pick for this album. It is a little darker and more lamenting than his other songs. I’ll be interested to see how he continues to develop. I’d like to see a little more of this dark, blues feeling side of him.

Joshua and the Holy Rollers

Photo: Justin Cook – special thanks to Mac Hanson for providing this image

There are those who might argue with me about including these guys in a music roundup on a Southern blog, since their bio notes they were formed in Los Angeles. But bear with me, because you NEED to have Joshua and the Holy Rollers on your playlists. While Mac Hanson bears a last name of noted fame, I cannot even begin to place him in the same categories or levels as his brothers. And when I say that, dare I say it? I might rank him higher on a personal level. Mac has brought his own unique and rebellious style to the table with a grit and rawness that you aren’t going to find on any of his brothers’ albums. He hails from Oklahoma originally, and I think we can all say that any southern birth location means you’ll be exposed to classic southern rock, country and blues just as a simple birthright. Mac and his band members bring these influences right to the front. Band members Logan Baudean, Al Moore and Joey LeRosa hail from New Orleans, Nashville and Indianapolis respectively, and we get tastes of each of these places throughout their new but overwhelmingly game changing songs.

My first exposure to these guys actually came through finding Mac on Instagram, and seeing a post somewhere in the mix about the release of “Humble Pie,” which I promptly listened to. Do you remember me mentioning that my personal playlist is very hard to get added to? “Humble Pie” went straight to my playlist, and has a lifelong seat at the table of my heart. Accompanied by simple guitar acoustics, Mac’s voice and lyrics carry us back home to small town origins and the simplicity of places where time moves just a little bit slower. Every time I listen, I immediately picture the glow of the sun at dusk, peeking through spanish moss laden oak trees on small streets. The song is a longing for those beginnings of simplicity and ease. It crept up on me in a really chaotic point in my life and I really lean on that feeling of wanting the slower pace back.

So “Humble Pie” set this bar for me with Joshua and the Holy Rollers, because here it was, this really beautiful introduction to new artists, would they carry forward with similar quality? What would we see from Mac as a unique musical entity breaking out of his shell? And along comes “Hey Hey.” Joshua and the Holy Rollers’ second release completely switched it up and introduced listeners to the rebel that Mac is. This song is a sultry, seductive exploration of temptation with a classic rock meets blues feeling to it. Mac gives listeners a touch of the gravelly roughness to his voice, which just adds to the sex appeal that this song carries. The song was quickly followed up with the release of Tribulations which is their first and somewhat short album. I say short, but I’m probably just impatient. While I love “Hey Hey,” let me just tell you that the song that ran away with my heart is “Furlough.” “Furlough” gives us a feel of the folk and southern rock influences with it’s softer confessional beginning. The song is one of personal ownership of individual downfalls, and this nomadic nature that can bear burden on relationships and the ability to love in full. The second half of the song slips into an upbeat, southern rock style tempo that really makes you want to cut loose and dance some, and I like the combination of soft and easy to that jam out feeling. “Right in Front of Me” gives a touch of religion to listeners, which again, I really love when we get that personal tie to artists and who they are at their core. The most recent installment from the group is a single release called “Talks Like Alabama.” I immediately thought of Aerosmith when this song came on. It has such a Steve Tyler style, and Mac explores a bit of that loud and bold part of himself with this song. The guitar takes on a real Rock n’ Roll feeling in this song. I’m sitting on my hands trying to be patient for the video that they recently shot for this song, and for the release of Tribulations which is upcoming. I mean it, you NEED to add these guys to your list!

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