Something new is happening in country music and its official home base in Nashville. While the glitz remains, and girls, guns, and broken hearts still take up much of the airwaves, a new type of musician is behind the wheel of the pickup truck. This newcomer welcomes more musical influences, writes darker and truer, and isn’t afraid to go it alone.
Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton are the current torchbearers, but they’re far from the only ones who will be making waves nationwide. Sturgill Simpson has been earning rave reviews, while Margo Price became the first country artist to sign with Jack White’s Third Man Records. The list is growing.
It’s not surprising to see more country on late-night television, as well as penetrating San Francisco venues synonymous with indie rock and pop. While not a new trend, it will be more difficult to ignore soon, and nowhere will it be more evident than to fans of Americana and folk pop — the followers of Mumford — who have been groomed for several years. It’s time for fans of indie rock to start paying attention to country music, and the next 10 days offer at least two enticing opportunities.
“Something is trendy for a while and something breaks through that’s different,” says Aubrie Sellers, a lifelong resident of Nashville and daughter of Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Lee Ann Womack. Sellers released her debut album, New City Blues, on independent label Thirty Tigers earlier this year. She opens for Jamestown Revival at the Independent next week, and headlines at Slim’s in June.
“It happened with Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson), and I think it happened with Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle in the ‘80s,” the 24-year-old says. “There’s always been a little group of artists…that people connect with that doesn’t necessarily sound like everything else on the radio. I think that’s what’s happening again now with Sturgill, Chris Stapleton, and Kacey Musgraves.”
The Saint Johns, meanwhile, have only lived in Nashville the last four years. The duo of Louis Johnson and Jordan Meredith are originally from Florida but moved to Music City after a stint in New York. Johnson and Meredith blend Americana with country and pop in the vein of the Civil Wars, but with an electric twist. They open for Judah & the Lion (also from Nashville) later this week at The Chapel.
“You’re not afraid to move to Nashville and play music — any style of music, and that’s opened up the conversation to people saying, ‘Hey, I’m not OK with writing the status quo,” Johnson says. “That’s how Kacey Musgraves took the country world and totally flipped it on its head. So did Chris Stapleton.”
Johnson and Meredith met in 2008 in St. Augustine, Florida, at a party after he picked up her guitar and started to play. A close sibling-like friendship quickly blossomed, and they began to play open mic nights and eventually write their own songs. After fans began requesting the original material over the cover songs, they decided to give a music career a try and moved to New York the following year. But the cost of living there forced them to retreat home before choosing Nashville as their next destination in 2010.
“The community there for musicians and artists is unbelievable; we feel like we found our place in the world,” Meredith says. Adds Johnson: “All of the people we have written with are…not just doing the ‘Nashville thing’ that people think about when they think of Nashville.”
In 2012, their song “Your Head and Your Heart” created some waves on iTunes’ singer-songwriter chart, and they released a debut EP, Open Water, the following year. A full-length debut, Dead Of Night, followed last month. Lyrically, it was inspired by mistakes made in past relationships, and the regrets that went along with that. Both are now in strong committed relationships.
Opening track “Shadowplay” deals with pulling out of depression and allowing listeners to know that while they can shut out everything, the world can’t do the same to them.
“It’s something I was feeling at the time,” Meredith says. “I wouldn’t say I struggle with depression, but I also am somebody who can go to dark places and think I am failing at everything. It was a song…I needed to hear at that point in my life.”
While not present in the words, coping with anxiety is ever-present in the music of Dead Of Night, says Johnson. As they were making the album, there were many times they wondered if they would ever finish and played into their emotions as they were writing and recording. This mood is juxtaposed with songs that are, at times very danceable. The title track and twangy “Testifier” are two examples.
“I think this is happy and I’m tapping my foot, but I’m a little on edge,” Johnson says.
Like many of the new breed of Nashville musicians — Simpson, for example covered Nirvana’s “In Bloom” earlier this month — the Saint Johns draw influence from many genres. They may draw comparison to the Civil Wars, but Dead Of Night sounds more modern.
“Musically, we try to step back further and look at the larger landscape,” says Johnson. “We really took a lot of this record from bands like Fleetwood Mac and even Tom Petty and Simon & Garfunkel.”
Despite not knowing anyone besides themselves when they moved to Nashville, the duo has found its place in the city.
“We’ve written with (singer-songwriters) Trent Dabbs and Matthew Perryman Jones, but we’ve also written with Joe Don (Rooney) from Rascal Flatts,” Johnson says. “It totally doesn’t matter. Everyone is excited to be in the room and write a song.”
While the Saint Johns had to learn Nashville from scratch, Aubrie Sellers grew up surrounded by the way things were.
Besides the experience of her mother, she learned from her singer-songwriter father, Jason Sellers, who has written for Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire, and Jason Aldean; and her producer stepfather, Frank Lidell, who has worked with Miranda Lambert and produced Aubrie’s debut.
Sellers, who appreciates high-energy, electric music, has started referring to her style as “garage country.” For inspiration, she pulled from country forefathers like George Jones, Steve Earle, and Ralph Stanley, her favorite singer. After she discovered electric guitar, she fell in love with the music of bluesman Robert Johnson, and later, Led Zeppelin.
Much of New City Blues features blues-tinted rock (no acoustic guitars here) with flourishes of early punk and quick-witted lyrics.
“My voice is very country, obviously (and) I have country roots,” Sellers says. “But I didn’t feel it encompassed everything about the music. I didn’t think calling it Americana did, either. I have a lot of rock influences on the record….that kind of trashy, raw sound from a lot of the rock music that I love.”
Several songs, like “Magazines” and “Paper Doll,” approach celebrity culture and the fakeness of mainstream country music. Much of that she experienced while spending time with her mother and seeing how those within the industry would treat her.
“People don’t always notice how perceptive you are as a kid,” she says. “I was a perceptive kid, and quiet, so I watched all of it happen. It made me grow up a little bit jaded.”
From her parents, she also learned every other facet of the industry, including being “cautious of the system” and focusing on the music without getting caught up in the typical pitfalls. Her father co-wrote one song, “Like The Rain,” and he and her mother sing on the song on the album.
“I wanted them to be a part of it,” she says. “I didn’t want them too involved because I’m trying to set myself apart, but I also respect them and everything they’ve taught me.”
Another track, “Losing Ground,” deals with depression and its effects. The song is about one of those gritty subjects that country music didn’t shine such a bright light on in the past. When she wrote the song — which she did on her own without cowriters — she never envisioned anyone else listening to it.
“(It’s) probably the most personal song on the record as far as revealing who I am,” Sellers says. “Obviously, things like anxiety and depression are on the rise, and medication is being doled out by doctors left and right….It may be human to not be happy all the time.”
She wrote New City Blues over four years, with the intention of finishing the album before shopping it around to major labels. But after she finished, she became scared that the labels would want to change her music. Country major labels are just like the other ones, and don’t financially support newer artists like they used to, she says. They’re also very radio-centric.
“If you put out a song and it fails at radio, then you’re pretty much done,” she says. I’ve seen people sign record deals at major labels…and something doesn’t work, and (labels) want the artists to start writing with new people, trying out a new producer or changing who they are.”
That’s why she decided to release the album on an indie label, an approach becoming a more popular alternative in the Nashville music community, and very much a punk rock philosophy. That’s why Price was so happy with Third Man Records, and others may soon follow suit.
“The business…has changed completely since I was younger,” Sellers says. “People are starting to realize you can do it this way, still have complete creative freedom and get your music out to people.”
Saturday, June 25