Critics love to decry contemporary country music for its soullessness and elementary sense of rhythm, but country sounds pretty organic these days. Bluegrass purists and other specialists may lack pop savvy, but groups like The Zac Brown Band and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real have found ways to integrate songful moments into their post-Grateful Dead, post-Dave Matthews music. Along with fellow adherent of the organic Jamey Johnson, Nelson is set to play this year's Country Throwdown — a touring get-together that honors the music of the people, just as it should.
Last year's Throwdown dates were dominated by hard-rocking country band Montgomery Gentry, but the current Throwdown has Willie Nelson's name attached. For Lukas Nelson — Willie's son, and something of a classic-rock adherent — the Throwdown tour provides an alternative to the Fleetwood Mac imitations of Lady Antebellum and other carefully manicured Nashville country acts.
"It's more of a departure from what the normal Nashville sound is," says Nelson. "Especially in terms of what's being put out on the radio. It's a throwback to the Outlaw Country movement. It's a different side of country music — not necessarily pop country. Country music right now is mainly just soft rock. This is more like the hard-rock version."
Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, make music based squarely on classic-rock verities. The difference between Nelson and, say, Lady Antebellum lies in Nelson's immersion in blues guitar, and in the more casual approach Nelson takes to singing. On last year's self-titled full-length, the group sounded as if they had absorbed any number of 1970s templates, from Little Feat to Jimi Hendrix — in fact, the record featured a well-done medley of Hendrix's "Hey Baby" and "Pali Gap."
At its best, Nelson's music refreshes its sources, as on the record's riff-driven "L.A." Meanwhile, Jamey Johnson made one of last year's most acclaimed country collections, The Guitar Song. Featuring loose, slangy performances, The Guitar Song demonstrates how country can both relax and communicate the same old constraint — and, of course, this offhand approach has drawn praise from critics.
That probably doesn't matter to Johnson, who started out as a clean-cut singer in the George Jones mold and now sports some of the most impressive avenging-redneck hair in pop music. The Guitar Song has considerable merit, although there are moments when the unpretentiousness of it all seems as oppressive as Lady Antebellum's pop ambitions. When it works — check out "Mental Revenge" and the six-minute "By the Seat of Your Pants"— the record suggests a post-Waylon, post-boogie makeup kiss with traditional country.
This all makes Johnson perfect for the Throwdown, which features a slew of other performers — up-and-comers such as Lee Brice, Dani Flowers and Erin Enderlin (Johnson produced Enderlin's forthcoming full-length The Whiskeytown Cryer). Appropriately for a show with a headliner who is both an accomplished songwriter and a highly original singer, this year's Throwdown honors many aspects of the country experience.
Whether or not this continues the great Outlaw tradition is something Johnson seems to find irrelevant. "It's good to hang out with real people that enjoy good music," he says. "If that's 'Outlaw' to you, let's all be outlaws."
That's spoken like, well, a true outlaw. As for Lukas Nelson, this year's Throwdown helps keep alive valuable attitudes of all-inclusive cool. "It's gonna be like the older days, when you could have these kinda things goin' on all the time," he muses. "It's all gonna be organic music, and it's gonna be good."
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