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!

Songs About Specific Things – Heartbeat Love Songs

One of the sub-types of Love songs that I really like are what I think about as “heartbeat love songs”. The connection between the heart and love is pretty obvious, and too many songs to name use broken hearts, heavy hearts, full hearts, etc as metaphors for feelings of love both good and bad, including at least two songs I’m familiar with actually called “Heartbeat” (a Chris Young-recorded song and Carrie Underwood co-written and recorded song). But the type of song I’m thinking about is where the rhythms and basslines of the song create a heartbeat sound that jives with the lyrics (and instrumentals) of love in the song.

Conway Twitty and George Strait are two of the masters of these types of songs. I’d Love to Lay You Down is a good Twitty example. The heartbeat rhythm is so prominent, particularly in the choruses, and I like the way it comes to a halt between stanzas almost as if the heart is no longer beating when Twitty is not professing his love. And it also effectively comes to a crawl when Twitty, a bit ominously, sings “when a whole lot of Decembers are showing in your face/ your auburn hair has faded and silver takes its place” but then comes back full force as the next set of lyrics start in “you’ll be just as lovely and I’ll still be around/ and if I can I know that I’d still love to lay you down” – the heartbeat rhythm coupling with the lyrics to affirm that the narrator’s love will still be there.

Maybe my favorite example of this type of song from Strait is Love Without End, Amen. The song showcases a couple different types of love: father and narrator as son, narrator as father and son and God as father and narrator as son. In each verse getting into a fight at school, trying a father’s patience and leading an imperfect life cause the listener to question whether love would triumph in that circumstance and the bassline becomes less prominent when the question is posed. Then when the chorus comes in the heartbeat rhythm picks back up affirming the triumph of love as the lyrics do the same. Two other nice examples are Strait’s Ocean Front Property and Fool Hearted Memory, in the later of which the heartbeat bassline is offset by an almost crying fiddle (and in the former some steel guitar), because of course these are hard times, heart break love songs. When Did You Stop Loving Me is another great, Strait heartbreak, heartbeat love song.

Plenty of other artists and songs get in on the heartbeat action, and most do so in a less obvious way where the heartbeat bassline is not quite so front and center. Alabama and Randy Travis are a couple more of my favorites. For instance, Travis’ Deeper Than the Holler is a wonderful song where the country boy narrator sings about the strength of his love, comparing it metaphorically to all of the country boy things he knows (“higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill”, “purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December”, etc). Behind these sweet lyrics, kicking in with particular strength in the choruses which are the parts of the song where Travis is really expressing his love, is the heartbeat bassline.

Somewhere there’s got to be an evolutionary biology study that tells us how of course we find the heartbeat rhythm comforting and associate it with love (listening to our own all day, mother clutching a kid close to show affection or protect, one lover putting their head on their mate’s chest, etc). But whatever the reason, when country songs combine this back beat with lyrics and instrumentals that team up to sing out the sub-themes of the type of love the song’s dealing with – heartbreak, nostalgic love, family love, romantic love – we get some songs that I think are really moving.

Good Sunday Songs

Each day of the week is almost like a mini stage in life attached to certain activities and emotions and I like country songs that speak to this. Songs like George Jones’ “Finally Friday” and Garth’s (and Jones’) “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – neither written by Jones or Brooks – and Steve Azar’s “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘til Monday)” – co-written by Azar – are great Friday songs.  They’re about checking out of work and blowing off steam from the week maybe with some beers.  The feel of a day like Friday or Monday or Wednesday is more straightforward, but Sunday has its own, less obvious, feel: basically collecting from the past week/end and the Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It-bosses and all of those George Jones six packs, reflecting with self, God and family and resting (and gearing) up for things to come.

Zac Brown Band’s “No Hurry” is one of the great Sunday songs. It’s great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of lyrical content really hits the Sunday vibe.  ZBB explicitly ignores of the boss calling on the telephone, household chores that need to be done and bills to be paid in favor of relaxing retreat:

There’s nothing wrong with an old cane fishing pole / and the smell of early spring
Sit down in a fold-up easy chair / on a quiet, shady river bank
Let the world go on without me / wouldn’t have it any other way,
cause I ain’t in no hurry today

The song takes the Sunday concept a little further, as a broader approach to life, and also focuses on getting right with the Lord – faith a core of the Sunday reflection and improvement themes.

Toby Keith hits the same themes in “My List”. This is fine song, not written by Keith but delivered well.  The narrator starts off crossing lots of weekend chores off the to-do list, but then comes around to those more important things in life to take care of.  The strength of this song (in addition to the direct but soft rhymes) is the really nice things on that life list:

  • like go for a walk, say a little prayer
  • take a deep breath of mountain air
  • put on my glove and play some catch
  • wade the shore and cast a line
  • look up a long lost friend of mine
  • sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
  • raise a little hell, laugh ‘til it hurts
  • put an extra five in the plate at church
  • call up my folks, just to chat
  • stay up late, then oversleep
  • show her what she means to me
  • start livin’

Listing activities turns out to be a pretty effective means of conveying the Sunday theme. By sort of aggregating the feelings associated with each individual listed activity set in context, we get a sum total of Sunday.  Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” does it the same way, listing out church-going and family BBQ imagery in particular along with other typical Sunday activities.  My favorite verse is:

I stroll to the end of the drive / pick up the Sunday Times / grab my coffee cup
It looks like Sally and Ron / finally tied the knot / well it’s about time
It’s 35 cents off of ground round / Baby cut that coupon out!
That’s what I love about Sunday

The wedding announcements are a nice Sunday tradition, and it’s also the vivid routine of lazily and leisurely walking down to the end of the driveway to grab the paper. And it’s especially, in the context of the love- and family-oriented song, the family-driven and romantic love with which we imagine the narrator pouring over the coupons with his wife.  The music videos and album artwork associated with these songs are consistent with the themes: the narrator being outside communing with nature (even holding church outside), creating lasting memories with kids (of course weaving in baseball, what could be stronger father-and-song bonding?), retreating with and protecting family or laying on a couch looking up to God in the middle of a wide open field.

Other songs get at the same theme without such explicit listing. Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is also a great Sunday song.  While the tempo of the song is clearly in the “I’m in a Hurry” vein of the title, the content repudiates the rushing mentality and messages a slow down.  Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” – one scarcely imagines being sung by anyone other than Johnny Cash – is another great example.  The song starts with the fallout from (and a bit of continuation of) the previous Saturday night and quickly turns to introspective reflection with the narrator taking in the Sunday sights, sounds and smells – kids playing, church songs and bells ringing, frying chicken – and engaging with God in thinking about the course of his life.

The feeling of Sunday is multi-faceted and hard to dig into and meaningfully capture, but I think there’s really a huge payoff in the form of such nice music when songs put this task in focus and are able to execute successfully.

The Early Years of Toby Keith

Listening to Pandora stations shuffled off Turnpike Troubadours and Spotify suggestions based on a history centered around artists like Pat Green and Reckless Kelly, Toby Keith songs don’t come on very often. But recently when one did, I was reminded that some of Keith’s material is actually pretty good.  There’s a lot of Keith material to wade through, so here and for starters I’ll just focus on the period between 1993’s Toby Keith and 1999’s How Do You Like Me Now.  These albums I think bookend a distinct period in TK’s career that I’ll call the Early Years.

His eponymous first album included Should’ve Been a Cowboy and Wish I Didn’t Know Now, which are the two songs I’d label great off that album, and two of three great songs from the Early Years. Cowboy is a nostalgic romp through an idealized cowboy life replete with references to cowboys in American history, movies and music culture.  Wish I Didn’t is a heartbreak love song recounting Keith’s discovery of his girlfriend’s cheating and wishing nostalgically that they could start over together or at least that he could’ve continued in his pre-discovery ignorance.  Keith wrote both songs, and both are great for me because they’re centered around classic themes with relatively novel but not over-worked lyrics and deliveries that are believable and true to the style that Keith establishes in this album and carries forward over at least the next handful of albums.

Bookending the Early Years is How Do You Like Me Now, which was Keith’s breakout album and a signal of a different career direction, with Country Comes to Town, How Do You Like Me Now (the third great song from the Early Years) and the underrated Blue Bedroom which wasn’t released as a single. HDYLMN is an upbeat and fun song with a bit of cheek.  It’s a celebration of the narrator making it in the country business, looking back on the crush of his younger years who wouldn’t give him the time and contrasting this celebration with the less fortunate path that crush went down.  In this song (as a this point in his career) TK’s made it.  He’s in your ear on the radio as he turns his glance back and asks how you like him now, you as spurning girl and directed perhaps at the audience as well.

In between Toby Keith and HDYLMN there was some material that was solid, fine and OK and plenty that was forgettable. Off Boomtown I’d put You Ain’t Much Fun in the good category, it’s funny and pretty original.  And I’d put Who’s That Man in the fine category.  Blue Moon was mostly forgettable, and Dream Walkin’ redeemed with a couple good songs, including I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying – written by Sting but delivered well by Keith – and the title track Dream Walkin’ whose vocals were extremely similar (in a good way) to Wish I Didn’t Know Now and whose lyrics were nice.

In the Early Years, TK was doing very well indeed. Four of his first five albums went platinum and his second four albums all cracked the Top 10 country charts, to be sure quite a feat for a new artist.  He also charted four number one singles, including the first release off Toby Keith Should’ve Been a Cowboy and the title track to HDYLMN, as well as 10 additional singles in the Top 10.  But chart success wasn’t automatic, as it would seemingly become in the Keith’s next period which I’ll call the Swagger Years.  Up until How Do You Like Me Now and Country Comes to Town, love was the predominant theme of Keith’s songs.  Most especially love songs with cheating, leaving, making mistakes, being replaced by another man, feelings of melancholy and loss, desperate, striving love and similar types of heartbreak and hard times love songs.  The minimal indications of vapid broiness in a few Early Years songs were more than offset by a broader corpus of thematically consistent songs with heartfelt lyrics, which it should certainly be noted were written or co-written in significant majority by Keith.  The next period, the Swagger Years, produced some of Keith’s best songs, but some questionable, wide misses too.

A ½ Bunch of Other Moments I Like in I Got a Car

The first moment I like – adding on to my previous post – is the conversation of the choruses. These vary a bit across the song but the gist is below. The matter-of-fact lyrics combined with Strait’s signature ballad delivery and the easy tempo of the song make this really nice listening. It’s like a great little taste of I Can Still Make Cheyenne in terms of delivery, though the content is more straightforwardly optimistic.

And I said, “well I got a car”, she said, “there’s something
At least it’s a start”, I said, “it’s better than nothing
“I ain’t in no hurry but I’m ready when you are”
And she said, “where do you think all this is going?”
I said, “there ain’t no way of knowing”
I guess I hadn’t thought it through that far
“But I got a car”

The second to last line of the chorus is arguably part of the dialogue, but I prefer to hear this as inner monologue, which I think makes the exchange more pure. I also really like, in the second chorus, the addition of the line “And I can’t promise you the moon and stars” after a variation of the aforementioned and contested second to last line of the above, which I think focuses attention on the simplicity of the “but I got a car”.

Second, I like verse below. One of the best vehicular escapism songs ever is Born to Run – perhaps a country song in another life – harnessing pent up energy (“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”), desperation (“‘cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider”), adventure and release (“Together we could break this trap / we’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back”), young love (“But I gotta know how it feels / I want to know if love is wild / Babe I want to know if love is real”) and some other powerful themes. Clearly Strait’s song is different in delivery but hits some of the same themes.

So we let the wheels turn and the windows down,
we let ourselves go all the way through town,
she never said stop and I never asked her why.
We drove into the night when outta nowhere
she said “I’d give anything to never go back there”,
and I kinda wish this day would never end.
She said, “I could use a change but I don’t even know where to begin”

Similarly in this verse I haven’t put quotes around the second to last line. Because the lyric is clearly “wish” I think this is intended to be part of what the girl is saying to Strait, but I prefer to pretend the word is “wished” and that this were part of Strait’s inner monologue, himself reflecting on and enjoying the experience too as the girl expresses her feelings. I also hear the first three lines and the next three lines as one ongoing, lightly-punctuated sentence each, which captures the cascading and unplanned adventure that’s being conveyed better than a bunch of short separate sentences.

Third, I like what is (for me) the ambiguity of the last verse:

We got lost in the miles, lost track of the days
‘til we finally found a stopping place
when the doctor said, “you know what’s on the way?”
And we found ourselves in a little white house,
one Sunday morning rain pouring down
She said, “I think it’s time but all the lines are out”
And her eyes teared up and she said, “what are we gonna do now?”

I understand this as separated into the following components. (a) “lost in the miles” and “stopping place” – continuing the car and driving metaphor – representing Strait and the girl continuing the relationship that started so auspiciously with “I got a car”, (b) a big time jump between the third and fourth lines of perhaps having raised multiple children and (c) finding themselves (Strait and the girl) alone again after their kids having left the nest (lines being out perhaps a metaphor for having cast their kids out into the world), and then nostalgically re-kindling their relationship going back to the car/ the original come on line where it all started/ the start of new adventures in life together. But it’s also possible (especially with “got your things in the back” in the next verse”), there’s no time lapse in (b) and the lines out in (c) are a more literal reference to something like phone lines and they’re just on their way to the hospital because “it’s time” for the baby. In fact, this second scenario is not only possible, it’s also how Strait interprets the song (see below). I heard the song in a different way, but I’m really OK with either version.

Third and a half, I like Strait’s (brief) reflections on the song that I heard online. Maybe I just need to get more plugged in to stuff like this, but I wish there were more interviews where singers talk about the songs they sing and/or write. He said “The car’s a metaphor for love, but it’s a vehicle to carry the song in”. Before even getting to this I like Strait’s genuineness in talking about what the song means. To me at least it’s important that even if someone hasn’t written a song, that as a listener I can believe the song means the same thing to them that it does to me. Usually that comes through (or not) in the delivery of the song itself and the consistency of the song with the singer’s body of work, persona, etc, and it did here. But it’s also nice to get a little extra-song confirmatory evidence that it’s not just that Strait is master at singing ballads – his own and others – but that he also relates to and appreciates this song. But anyway, I like what Strait said about the use of the car in song, because that’s how I see the song as well and I appreciate his showing insight into the song writing lens even more so, again, because Strait didn’t write the song.

The 9 Categories of Country Music

A few years ago my friend Dan and I discovered the 9 categories of country music. These subject areas and themes are the ones most frequently appearing in the best country music songs, crafted and defined to be broad enough to apply across the spectrum of country music and specific enough to capture the important topics covered in a particular song. Our theory was that, at least as a rule of thumb, the more categories a song hits the better the song. This certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule – Wagon Wheel, one of the unquestioned contenders for qualitatively best country song doesn’t stack up particularly impressively on our quantitative metric. It’s certainly true that by focusing lyrically on even just a couple of these categories a country song can be great. Nevertheless, our theory is that there’s at least a very strong correlation between the number of categories a song hits and how good that song is.

In no particular order the 9 categories are:

  1. Love
  2. Hard Times
  3. Raisin’ Hell
  4. Nostalgia
  5. Musical Aspirations and Inspirations
  6. God/ religion
  7. The South
  8. America
  9. Modes of Transportation

I can’t recall hearing a country song that did not hit at least a couple of these categories, and probably the average is around 3.5 categories. Of course, one of the key issues in analyzing country songs for the number of categories represented is how strict or loose a construction to put on each of the categories. I hope to explore each of these categories in depth in future posts and what I mean by the level of construction will become more clear. But just to give a bit of color on each of the categories by way of example, consider the following lyrics from the lone song that our analysis has uncovered as hitting 8 of the categories, Kenny Chesney’s I Go Back:

  1. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Love)
  2. And I go back to the loss of a real good friend/ and the sixteen summers I shared with him (Hard Times)
  3. And I go back to the feel of a fifty yard line/ A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine (Raisin’ Hell)
  4. After graduation and drinkin’ goodbye to friends (Nostalgia)
  5. “Jack and Diane” painted a picture of my life and my dreams (Musical Aspirations and Inspirations)
  6. So I go back to a pew, preacher and a choir/ singin’ ‘bout God, brimstone and fire (God/ religion)
  7. I go back to the smell of an old gym floor/ and the taste of salt on the Carolina shore (The South)
  8. Not represented (America)
  9. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Modes of Transportation)