Baseball & Country Music: Part 3 – Songs About Baseball

It occurred to me the other day listening to Alabama’s Mountain Music that there aren’t a whole lot of country songs about baseball. There are a bunch of reasons why football might have the edge, particularly wrt high school football, but still once I got to thinking about it I was surprised by how few country baseball songs I could come up with.

Cheap Seats (recorded) by Alabama is one of the two songs closest to the mark I can think of. This song paints a great picture of baseball. It hits the bases of hot dogs, flat beer, jawing at the umpire and of course cheap seats, but also nicely straddles the line between loving the game and just going because it’s something to do and something to watch. I love the lines “we got a great pitcher what’s his name” and “the game was close, we’ll call it a win” and then the reference to the dive bar band’s “kinda minor league sound”. For me the song captures both true love of baseball and simple enjoyment of the game as a means of having a couple of beers with friends. The other song is The Greatest by the great Don Schultz and of course with Kenny Rogers singing it. It hits baseball from the kids angle that I would have expected to be more widespread. To make an incredibly sweet song short, the little kid throwing up pitches to himself in ballfield and swinging and missing repeatedly comes to the realization at the end of the song that he’s the greatest pitcher in the world. It’s the American pastime as a vehicle for youthful optimism.

Even though it’s not strictly country, I’d be sad not to mention John Fogerty’s Centerfield which is at least on par with Cheap Seats and The Greatest. From the references to Casey at the Bat and a bunch of baseball greats to the great line “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” – I like everything about this song.

Trace Adkins’ Swing isn’t a good song, but worth mentioning because it at least has an obvious baseball setting and more interestingly was co-written by a young Chris Stapleton. Other songs weave baseball more softly into an Americana background. I like Aaron Watson’s nostalgic love song line about leaving town to play college baseball but losing out “cause you know the big leagues never called/and you went and fell in love with him”. And I also like Kip Moore’s “I didn’t have the grades but I had myself a major league fastball/got a call from the minor leagues in Wichita/ blew out my arm the first year”. The latter in Reckless, not to be confused with Watson’s Reckless, and on Moore’s Up All Night which is a very good, and his best, album.

Like in Mountain Music, there are probably a whole lot more songs like this, not explicitly about baseball but weaving in the pastime in hitting themes like nostalgia, opportunity and optimism and painting the wonderful American landscape.

Song Analysis: Riding With Private Malone

In analyzing a country song we start, as always, with the text. On a quantitative basis RWPM hits at least six of the nine categories of country music, and arguably two more. It’s less hokey and more meaningful than the following summary suggests, but the short version is the plot tracks a soldier getting out of the service and stumbling across a ’66 Corvette previously owned by the deceased title character Private Malone who ends up acting as the narrator’s guardian angel when he gets into a car crash.

Proceeding chronologically, the song hits America first with the narrator’s military service, later followed up by the service of PM plus of course the quintessential Americana of the car itself. Next is Modes of Transportation, when we see the narrator is looking up a newspaper ad for an old Chevy that turns out to be the ’66 Corvette that he fixes up and that the song is built around. After buying the car, our narrator reads the Nostalgic note left in the glove box by Private Malone from years ago, passing on his dream of the car to the new owner, the fact of the note a consequence of PM having died for his country – Hard Times (see also the fiery crash near the end of the song). Then in the second verse we see the narrator driving past all the girls in town, not Love but at least a nod to the category, and picking up country on the radio – a reference to country music though perhaps not Musical Aspirations and Inspirations. The third verse begins with the narrator Raisin’ Hell by driving too fast and ends with a witness seeing the (God/Religion) spirit of Private Malone rescuing the narrator from the crash, which spirit had been riding shotgun with the narrator all along.

It’s even more impressive that the song hits so many categories because it’s a story-telling song, rather than a song that lists things. For me it’s ultimately an American story of salvation, the title character giving up his life for country, the narrator restoring the car and living out the dream of Private Malone and then of course the narrator getting saved by God/Private Malone. Through the note-turned-chorus the song reaches back to the original dream of Private Malone and through the narrator the realization. It features the narrator in the first verse searching, the second restoring and exhilarating and the third coming close to his downfall but ultimately being rescued. And what especially makes the song so good is the depth and breadth of story it manages to pack into four minutes and change, with so many economical lyrical hooks punching above their weight to import for the listener bigger ideas and feelings into the song. This is one of the abilities of great songwriters that never ceases to amaze and delight me as a listener – the ability to create in a self-contained song and with just a few words an entire universe by drawing on meaning from our own real lives

The song was written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd and first recorded by David Ball, though I prefer the version Shepherd recorded. While Ball’s version is also good and I think his delivery of the choruses are on point, overall his rendition feels more to me like he’s capturing the story from a third-person perspective, whereas Shepherd’s version rings truer to me in the first person, which is an important part of the power of the song.

TX Independence Day NYC 2018

On the heels of a somewhat lackluster performance in November and sandwiched in between CBD and PFG, I didn’t expect Eli Young Band to be the highlight of the show, but they absolutely crushed it! Vocals were on point, energy and enthusiasm levels very high. Fingerprints songs were sprinkled in as were a couple of covers, but right from the start of their set with Jet Black & Jealous and When It Rains this felt like the EYB music that I fell in love with years ago and a reminder of just how talented this band is. Crowd seemed more into Saltwater Gospel, Drunk Last Night and the cover of Come Together – but I preferred Always the Love Songs, Guinevere and their cover of Learning to Fly which surprisingly no one in the crowd seemed to know. I thought the renditions of Dust (a good song, but not one of my favorites of theirs) and Even If It Breaks Your Heart were especially strong – lots of emotion and energy in the vocals.

EYB 3-9-18

For some reason the show was scheduled for a Friday night which prevented a number of my friends from making it out, but we managed to squeeze in a few pre-concert drinks and made it to Terminal 5 right for the start of Casey Donahew Band’s set, though unfortunately missed Wade Bowen. CBD, as usual, was pretty electric – I haven’t yet seen them play a show where it didn’t seem like they were having a great time rocking out and where it didn’t feel like they’d rather be up on that stage singing their hearts out than anywhere else in the world. Set list was strong, and it seemed like the band was particularly into it with Double-Wide Dream, 12 Gauge and Stockyards. Newer songs from All Night Party were woven seamlessly into the set, and I particularly enjoyed Kiss Me – which is even better live, with a little more grit and rock and roll – and Country Song – a song just constitutionally suited to be played in concert.

Casey Donahew Band 3-9-18

Pat Green, too, seemed very much at home and happy to be playing in NYC. In addition to his usual concert set, it felt like a bonus to get to hear a few songs which don’t seem to be concert mainstays like Somewhere Between Texas and Mexico and Here We Go, and Texas On My Mind which I’ll always have a special place for even if not written by PFG since this was the first Green recording I ever heard. One of my buddies who couldn’t make the show this year would have been disappointed that neither Girls From Texas nor Down to the River made the set list, the latter of course never making it despite our best efforts at encouragement. Maybe the surprise stand out for me this year was While I Was Away. A number of the songs on Home have been growing on me since I first heard the album, and even if Green didn’t pen this one his delivery rings so true that it’s hard not to be moved by the song.

Pat Green 3-9-18

Awesome show this year, and hats off as always to these Texas artists willing to share a little country music with us folks in NYC.

Eli Young Band @ Brooklyn Bowl

Country music in NYC is always a treat and I’d been looking forward to seeing EYB at this show for a long time. The last few times I’ve seen them they opened for different pop country superstars – I want to say Kenny & Tim at Gillette Stadium and then Kenny and ZBB at the Georgia Dome. Before that I’d seen them as part of the Texas Independence Day line-up in NYC – pre-Life at Best and Crazy Girl – but I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to see them headline.

Brooklyn Bowl turns out to be an absolutely awesome live music venue, and it was great to get to celebrate my sister’s birthday over some country. For about the first half of the concert we were bowling, which turned out to be a mixed blessing since while bowling is up there with country music among my favorite things, it was tough to focus on my pin action and give EYB the attention they deserve at the same time.

EYB 11-12-17

The set list, comprised of EYB’s “oldies”, stuff from their new album and a bunch of covers, felt unusual. In terms of old stuff, I couldn’t have asked for a much better song list – Jet Black & Jealous, Skeletons, Small Town Kid and Guinevere are some of my very favorites. Interestingly their set list had When It Rains on it too (one of my enduring favorites), but Skeletons was also penciled in and their sound guy said it was an EYB game time decision which of the two to play but that they wouldn’t play both. This old stuff is what I came for. Especially with this band, there are so many more classic songs I wish they’d have played – Radio Waves, Get in the Car and Drive, How Should I Know, So Close Now, Oklahoma Girl.

EYB Set List 11-12-17

The new stuff, and by this I mean the Fingerprints songs, was difficult for me to appreciate since my familiarity with most of these songs (save Saltwater Gospel) was generally limited to my having listened to the album on Spotify a couple times over the preceding few days. Maybe it was this lack of familiarity that made the show feel a bit disjointed, rather than not liking the new songs. I suspect the former since EYB has such a solid track record of material and my sister likes the new album.

And then there were a whole bunch of covers which I didn’t quite understand, especially given how much gold of their own EYB has. When they first played David Lee Murphy’s Dust on the Bottle I said OK because that’s a great song, but they went on to play a strange mix of too many other covers including Come Together and No Woman No Cry mixed in with Small Town Kid. I definitely appreciate musical variety and it can be fun to see artists performing others’ work especially if it seems like they are really having fun with the material, but I didn’t love how the chosen songs were worked into and meshed with the set here.

EYB 2 11-12-17

All in all a fantastic concert. Eli Young Band is still one of the best, and seeing them live was a lot of fun. As a side note, EYB will be playing at 2018 TID in NYC – a welcome return to the event after an absence of a few years!

Some Belated Thoughts on the 2017 CMAs

One of these days I’d love to make it to the CMAs and even if the 51st has been sitting on my DVR for a few weeks now I’ve been looking forward to watching on TV. The show’s about more than just the music that actually takes home the awards (some thoughts on last year’s CMAs here). I enjoy all the country stars taking turns performing – seeing them transition from their seated roles with family/spouse to performing up on stage and then back again makes them more interestingly human. And I like seeing these country performers recognize each other, especially when everyone in the audience is on the same page, singing along to a country classic – like Tulsa Time or Don’t Rock the Jukebox, a couple of 2017’s examples. I also like seeing great songwriters get recognized for their critical role in making country music.

In terms of live performances, one of the high points for me of this year’s show was Eddie Montgomery, Rascal Flatts and Dierks (H/T to him for getting in on this great performance) singing My Town in tribute to the departed Troy Gentry. She Couldn’t Change Me was among my first favorite country songs and there have been so many MG song I’ve loved over the years and Gentry will definitely be missed. I was surprised at how much I liked No Such Thing As a Broken Heart by Old Dominion, which made it onto my post-CMA Spotify playlist for further consideration. Luke Bryan’s performance and T-Swift’s no-show were lows.

Looking at some of the awards, Little Big Town was a poor choice for Vocal Group of the Year – especially stacking up against Rascal Flatts and ZBB, either of which should have handily beat them out. I suppose I should refresh my familiarity with LBT to understand why they keep winning awards/why people like them. I also didn’t care for the choice of Miranda Lambert as Female Vocalist of the Year. If ever Carrie or Reba are in contention I can’t see how the award goes to someone else, unless perhaps Jennifer Nettles or Martina McBride are involved.

One of the winners I actually felt pretty good about was Jon Pardi for New Artist of the Year. I’m not quite sure how the CMA determines who’s new since I remember listening to Missin’ You Crazy and Up All Night driving around in my good old Jeep in 2012-13 (especially since the radio stations were pushing his songs real hard then) but at least, of the folks nominated, I think he was the best choice. Pardi actually (co-)writes most of his songs and strikes a pretty good balance between Billboard pop country, traditional country and country rock. I was also pleased and surprised to see Jason Isbell’s name come up via nomination for Album of the Year even if he didn’t get the award. This nomination also led indirectly to my being aware that there’s a thing called the Americana Music Association with its own awards show which I’ll definitely need to check out.

Inductees into the CMHOF this year were strong. Alan Jackson is one of my absolute favorites – and based on live reactions clearly a favorite too of the CMA crowd – a rock solid performer who seems to increasingly represent the backbone of traditional contemporary country. And Jerry Reed with the classic East Bound and Down and Don Schlitz who wrote Forever and Ever, Amen, Deeper Than the Holler, The Gambler and too many other great songs to name.

Cheers to a fine show. As they say: next year in Nashville!

Turnpike Troubadours in NYC!

The Turnpike Troubadours are one of my favorite groups making music these days and I was very excited to see them play in New York City a couple weeks ago. At a Halloween party shortly after the concert, one fella was dressed as a cowboy and sure enough it turned out that he liked country music, but although he’d recently been to an Eric Church concert he’d never heard of the Turnpike Troubadours. Which is about right since even though both definitely fall under the larger country music umbrella, they’re not the same kind of music.

Turnpike Troubadours Full Band 10-23-17

In trying to pitch this concert to a couple of my friends, I described the group as a cross between Zac Brown Band and Mumford & Sons. And thinking about that description in retrospect, more in analysis mode than selling mode, I’d also throw in a dash of Townes Van Zandt, high praise to be sure. To encapsulate the thought in non-musical terms, the beers of choice at the venue were Shiner, Brooklyn Lager and Budweiser, with the bars running out of Shiner pretty early on in the night. There were plenty of hipster glasses, flannels and even a fedora or two in the crowd, but also some bros in white tees and tight jeans, and then of course some country band tees and boots too.

Evan Felker 10-23-17

Without reference to any kind of technical definition of the sub-genre if there is one, I’d call this music Americana. TT’s instrumentals cover the full range of traditional country sounds – banjo, harmonic, fiddle and pedal-steel guitar – generously and effectively deployed to further the mood and tone of songs’ lyrics. And it’s the lyrics that really draw me to the Turnpike Troubadours. Their songs are the opposite of so many songs out there with cookie-cutter formulas: characters and settings that get caricatured, references to products and cities that seem like a music executive has dictated and plot lines taken from a stock catalogue. Their songs have real stories to tell with characters and plot lines painted from real life that are original and often flawed or imperfect. Their songs are overflowing with lyrical content and make me feel as though TT, and Evan Felker in particular, will never run out of material and stories to tell.

Turnpike Troubadours Full Band 2 10-23-17

More on the TTs and their great songs (and new album) soon, but wanted to share a bit on this great concert in NYC!

Country Music at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I recently had the chance to go to Cleveland and one of the top items on my agenda was paying a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The “Early Influencers” exhibit was one of the high points, at the start of the main hall. I liked this for a bunch of reasons. In general, it was a great reminder of the organic development of music and how though we necessarily classify music into genres, individual artists branch out in all kinds of original ways leading others to follow and eventually spawning what in retrospect is identifiable as a different kind of music. More specifically, I think the exhibit did a nice job of showing some of the strands of music that were woven together to create R&R and some of the key early figures in this development.

R&RHOF - Hank Williams

I also really liked the special exhibit on John Mellencamp. He was one of my favorite rock artists growing up and, in contrast to the way the rest of the HOF was laid out, it was great to get a little more depth even if only on one artist.

R&RHOF - Mellencamp Small Town Lyrics

The Allman Brothers received a little bit of attention, including in this big room where they had full sets of band instruments and costumes (as well as some original lyrics). But I was a little surprised at the lack of coverage of other southern rock bands – I don’t recall seeing anything significant on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band or The Doobie Brothers. And I didn’t see anything in the way of groups trending more towards country – like say Alabama or Charlie Daniels Band – whose inclusion in rock fold would have been far more natural than some of the groups that the HOF did include.

R&RHOF - Allman Brothers Band

While it’s not as substantively important, I was also underwhelmed by the plaques commemorating each of the artists that have been inducted into the R&R HOF. Recalling the Cooperstown-like bronze plaques in the majestic rotunda at the Country Music HOF, a bunch of small names on plastic laminate in a remote corner of the museum didn’t seem to do the artists justice.

One of the things about rock and roll I think is so interesting is how the music was situated in its time. Music produced in any genre has elements of reflection on and reaction to its time, but rock and roll seems unique for a few reasons. The time period in which I think we’d say the genre was conceived and came of age was marked by rapid social change and the genre itself pushed boundaries so far in so short a period of time. For rock, a core part of its raison d’etre was and is rebellion and nonconformity. I would have loved to learn more on how rock fans and performers thought about this at the time, though admittedly this sort of perspective that I think is interesting is probably hard to capture in a museum.  The HOF at least nodded towards this sort of thing in some of the video exhibits (e.g. on Elvis and American Bandstand clips of all different artists), an exhibit on opposition to rock and roll (it wasn’t as interesting as it sounds, basically politicians talking about how terrible rock is) and a bit on the Summer of Love.

Even if a downside was not getting into so much depth on individual artists or a broader social perspective on the music, overall the HOF was well worth the visit.  Most of the museum was just a collection of cool and interesting artifacts – old concert posters, original lyrics (probably my favorite of all), artists’ instruments and all sorts of knick knacks from the past 75 or so years of rock history. Great visit!

Song Analysis: EYB’s Saltwater Gospel

In the interests of not burying the lede: I don’t have a problem with Saltwater Gospel, but I’m not crazy about it. I don’t think it stacks up against some of EYB’s very high quality songs, but at the same time it comes across much better performed by them than it would have if the song had gone to one of the pop-country regulars.

Eli Young Band has been one of my favorite groups for a long time. I remember seeing them way back when they were an opener at Texas Independence Day in NYC all the way up to what I think is the most recent time I’ve seen them: playing at the Georgia Dome with ZBB and Kenny Chesney. They’ve always deserved (and craved) a wider audience and it was awesome to see them get just that with Even If It Breaks Your Heart and Crazy Girl. (They’re also schedule to play in November at Brooklyn Bowl – more about that in a future post.)

My first reaction to hearing Saltwater Gospel was that it felt like a Florida Georgia Line song. And sure enough EYB didn’t write the song and the songwriters – Ashley Gorley, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman – initially seemed to have folks like Kenny and Jake Owen in mind for the song. I’ll save for another day the so interesting topic of commercial songwriting and an exposition on singing/ performing versus singer-songwriting, but suffice it for now to say that there’s a whole to be said for folks performing their own material or, in the absence of that, at least only recording other folks’ songs that are authentic expressions of the singer’s own thoughts and feelings.

The articles I’ve read about SG take great pains to point out that, in their view, this isn’t just another “beach song”. That’s right in the sense that the song isn’t about loading your truck up with Bud lights, picking up some girls in swimsuits and going down to the beach to party. The other point the articles seem to focus on is that the authors have professed that they don’t want the song to be listened to as a diminution of the importance of actual church-going. I didn’t interpret the song that way (though I don’t think the music video helps) and any bone to pick I have with the song isn’t on that account.

Saltwater Gospel does have a nice point. It is definitely awe-inspiring to stand at the edge of the ocean and feel the power and majesty of what God created. Listening to the song more casually the first few times (i.e. at the gymnasium and not focusing so intently on the lyrics) I interpreted the song as a quasi-baptism song, with the singers relationship with God consummated via the ocean standing in for the formal religious rite. On closer listen, I think this is reading too much into the lyrics, and maybe this would have been too far anyway, but the nice point of feeling the awesomeness of God’s ocean still stands. In a world where there’s an embarrassment or reluctance, if not outright cynicism, towards declaring reverence for something , it’s no small feat to identify something as meaningful and stand behind it.

For me, this is the song’s success: the recognition of this awesomeness. I don’t think the song’s lyrics are so adept at developing this initial recognition – the Amens and “I’m in heaven watching all these waves roll in” feel ham-handed, although I prefer and like the lyrics of “When I’m lost I know where to get found again” and especially “Yeah, I got all the proof I need.  And it sure makes me believe” the latter of which I think really encapsulates the point of the song. Overall my take-away is that the song doesn’t feel much like EYB but despite some pop-country trappings, has something original and meaningful at its core that appeals.

Pat Green & Casey Donahew Live in NYC

Great performances both by Casey Donahew Band and Pat Green last night at Irving Plaza.

Night started with Casey Donahew Band:

CDB

Then thanks to my friend Greg, a quick photo with the man himself, Pat F. Green who was nice enough to refresh his signature on my old-style Pat Green tee:

IMG_1501

As usual, Pat was rocking out hard:

Green

A while back I’d suggested a set list for Pat for the Texas Independence Day concert. There are some tweaks I’d make to that list for non-TID show, but the concert last night stacked up well against my list. It was particularly great to hear Here We Go and Texas On My Mind. Home, while not on my list, has been growing on me lately and Green’s live performance really did justice to the song’s lyrics. I missed hearing Lucky – a very strong choice in Green’s concert repertoire and Whiskey – just an overall fantastic and under-rated song.

Green band

Some great NYC concerts coming up real soon – stay tuned for more about Turnpike Troubadours and Eli Young Band!

 

An Introduction to the Great Casey Donahew Band

If it wasn’t already exciting enough for Pat Green to be coming to town other than for Texas Independence Day, imagine how delighted I was to discover that Casey Donahew Band would be opening. Pat Green is one of the finest Texas country artists out there today and it would be hard to say enough great things about him and his music, but I’m almost as excited to see Casey Donahew Band. PFG has been an easy sell to some of my less country-musically inclined friends and readers who may not be as familiar with CDB so I thought I’d share a bit about why I’m so excited to see them (for more specific thoughts on their most recent album see here).

Casey Donahew Band’s corpus of records is relatively small – and their first album was only released in 2006 – but they have enough strong material on those 6 studio albums to play at least 3 awesome concerts without repeating a thing. For me the overriding themes of CDB are energy, authenticity, originality and humor. Right from the first track of their first album, Stockyards on Lost Days, CDB made it clear that they are Texas country through and through and here to rock. Stockyards, like a lot of their material, is Texas country-rock, with the twang of CD’s voice and plenty of fiddle plus lots of drums and electric guitar, with a foundation of original lyrics and performed with contagious energy and authentic emotion.

One of the things I find so enjoyable about CDB is their originality and sense of humor. Songs like White Trash Story, Double-Wide Dream, White Trash Story II and White Trash Bay blend portraits of original characters and Americana with funny juxtapositions that say yeah this is real life but we can laugh at it and ourselves too. Or CDB can turn a heartbreak song into something rollicking and fun like Go to Hell or just be funny for fun’s sake like Loser. The lyrical content of their songs is, in a very fun way, all over the map. It’s unexpected to hear an up tempo song about a woman shooting her husband with a shotgun but that’s what we get with Twelve Gauge.

Another highlight is the development of CDB’s ballad singing and composition skills across the arc of their albums. As compared to Lost Days which features significantly less variety, CDB opened up in their self-title album particularly in terms of tempo and tone, including a number of slower-paced and mid-tempo songs with a more obviously melancholy tone in addition to songs featuring unrestrained lyrical and instrumental energy. This same development continued on Moving On – the overriding theme of which was heartbreak love songs (my favorites being Broken and Breaks My Heart, though my sense is more people prefer Angel) – and through their later albums.

The energy that Casey Donahew Band brings to the table is more complex that just writing upbeat party anthems, though they get slightly closer to that in their latest album. This energy and their lyrical originality shines through in songs like Stockyards and One Star Flag about Texas, cowboy songs like No Doubt and That’s Why We Ride, love songs like Whiskey Baby and Lovin’ Out of Control and hard times songs like Homecoming Queen and Moving On. In particular I love Casey Donahew’s heartbreak love songs like Sorry, Next Time, Running Through My Head, Where the Rain Can’t Find Me, Runaway Train and California. There are no doubt great songs still to be written about breaking up and crying on a barstool, but one of CDB’s particular skills is mixing up the anger, hurt, despair, revenge, etc. with a little humor and considerable insight and empathy into up tempo songs the listener can have fun with while still considering, and actually I think more fully experiencing, the underlying emotions.

Hope to see everyone at Irving Plaza in New York City on September 9 for this show – should be a great one!