Hollywood Palomino Night. The Roxy. 04.26.15
What defines country music? Wikipedia defines it as a “genre of American popular music that originated in Southern United States in the 1920s.” It goes on to say country music “often consists of ballads and dance tunes with generally simple forms and harmonies accompanied by mostly string instruments.” I can’t really argue with those statements, but they also don’t explain what country music is. Urban Dictionary does a slightly better job when it says country music used to be “a deep, earthy, and universally respected genre of folk music embraced by people from all walks of life, and performed by heartland poets who wrote touching melodies and thought-provoking but subtle messages about life, love, and loss.” The key phrase there is used to be. The site goes on to blame record companies for turning the genre into a vapid, money-grabbing business plagued with mediocrity. I can’t really argue with those statements either, but I do believe there is still a thriving country music scene that continues to exist outside the corporate stronghold that pollutes the airwaves. John Moreland, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Jamey Johnson, and Lydia Loveless are just a handful of names that come to mind. Those artists all have very different styles, but they all have one thing in common…they make true country music. I can’t provide a definitive definition of what that means. I just know it when I hear it.
The Stagecoach Music Festival takes places each year on the same grounds as Coachella. They utilize the stages and facilities after the Coachella crowd has moved on to deal with their hangovers and empty bank accounts. The festival is a who’s who of what is wrong with mainstream country today. You can find the crotch-grabbing, shot-slamming, redneck bros stacked back-to-back on the Toyota Mane Stage, but Stagecoach also attracts some real talent to the Southern California desert. Like a fresh drink of water in the blazing heat, the smaller acts maintain the smaller stages throughout the day. I’m not one for big festivals anymore, so instead of attending Stagecoach when I was in California last week, I caught the sideshows. I saw Sturgill Simpson (the only artist to perform at both Coachella and Stagecoach) bring his psychedelic outlaw country to the Fillmore in San Francisco. I was bummed that my Lydia Lovess ticket for Queen B’s in San Diego went to waste due to being sick, but I was able catch the Palomino Night at The Roxy in Hollywood. Bringing together some of the best names Stagecoach had to offer (in an intimate setting at a fraction of the cost), it proved to be well worth the drive to L.A.
John Moreland led the way through an evening of extremely diverse sets. Armed with nothing more than a stool and his guitar, the young singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma immediately silenced the growing crowd with his formidable presence. There is no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it, John Moreland is a large man. If you’ve never seen him live, his physique can be quite shocking. But once he starts strumming his guitar with those OKLAHOMA tattooed fingers, and the words start to flow from his heavily bearded mouth, all thoughts are silenced as he extends an invitation to a sad, sad world you cannot resist. You could’ve literally heard a pin drop on Sunset Blvd as he hung us all from the stars above.
Somehow I cannot picture Moreland enjoying the Stagecoach scene, and seeing him sitting at his private table after the show reminded me of his lyrics from “Blacklist” — “Maybe I don’t have it in me, maybe it doesn’t have me in it…just let me find the place where I fit” — but his songs about a home so far away from L.A. resonated just fine with the Hollywood crowd. One girl standing behind me just couldn’t control her excitement as Moreland rotated his short set between songs from In The Throes and High On Tulsa Heat, finally screaming out when he came around to “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore”. The set only lasted a half hour, but Moreland made the most of his time by packing in eight songs with very little banter. He kept seated the entire set and only opened his eyes in between songs. Highlights from the new album included stories of loss like “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” and “Cherokee”, but it was the stories that have already been ingrained into our souls that hit the hardest. “Blacklist”, “Break My Heart Sweetly” and “3:59am” never get old. They were classics the minute he put pen to paper. So as he paused to draw out those last lines — “My pockets are empty, I don’t own a thing , but I’d take a diamond from the sky…and put it in your ring” — I knew exactly what country music was. And also I knew I’d never have to words to describe it.
The curtain came down after Moreland’s solo set and as we turned around from our position in front of the stage, we saw a packed house. The Roxy only holds 500 people, but that’s a lot more than were in attendance when John Moreland performed with Kierston White at a coffee shop in Boulder six months ago. Being the first act, the crowd might not have come out to see him, but I guarantee they were all fans by the time he left the stage.
Then the curtain came back up to expose Lindi Ortega and her full band. The Nashville (via Toronto) artist was the only act I didn’t know prior to the show. Full of energy, with a completely capable backing band, Ortega was the shot of adrenaline the crowd needed after Moreland’s haunted set. Her style leaned towards rockabilly, but her voice reminded me of Dolly Parton. Her lyrics were a little generic and wouldn’t have been out of place on a Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood album, but her personality more than made up for a lack of originality. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to find her music or see her perform again, but I can see how people would like her style. Her set was a well placed pick-me-up on a stacked bill.
Daniel Romano was the wildcard of the night, but I think he also had the largest following. The crowd seemed the most dense while he was on the stage. I only knew Romano from his last album, Come Cry With Me, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The album is great, but I didn’t know if I was supposed to take it serious or not. With a cover like this and songs like “Chicken Bill”, it was hard to tell if he was some kind of ironic hipster taking a jab at country music, or if he was a serious throwback who was just born to the wrong generation. After seeing him perform, I have to admit I’m still a little confused. Part Buddy Holly, part Hank Williams Sr., Romano sounds like the radio stations my grandfather used to listen to in his Chevy truck, but he was also selling pop art posters and pillow cases at the merch booth. I believe a lot of the songs he performed were covers, but I still enjoyed his set and look forward to listening to more of his music. His steel pedal man and backup singer were amazing as well.
Seeing a show in Hollywood is much different than seeing a show in Denver. The Roxy had private booths for guests of the artists, so Nikki Lane could be found hanging out with her friends in a roped off area before her set. She was bouncing around the crowd in what looked like lingerie while guys in the men’s room were fixing their hair in the mirror. Ortega and Romano were nowhere to be found, but Moreland was sitting at his almost empty table, face buried in his phone while a female friend went to go grab them drinks. It was all a little surreal, and the country vibe seemed to have left the room with Romano, but then Nikki Lane made her way from the VIP section onto the stage and I realized we were in for another kind of country. Just as real as everything that came before it, but different. Lane has been called the ‘queen of outlaw country’ and she wore that crown with pride throughout her performance. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Lane now calls L.A. home, and she seemed right at home during her headlining set. She was pretty much the opposite of John Moreland.
White cowboy hat, black romper with her ass hanging out, a pair of boots, a guitar and a huge attitude, Nikki Lane kicked the night off with “Highway Queen” before demanding someone bring her a towel because “I got needs!” As she covered Buddy Guy’s “Gasoline and Matches” I couldn’t help but see a confident, countrified Zooey Deschanel up on that stage. Before “Man Up” she told the unfortunate story about her failed marriage as if she were shrugging off a bad hair day — “I did a dumb thing and got married, now I got a divorce on my record” — the failure was blamed on her man being bad at his job, “his job as a husband!” Where Moreland will crush souls with tales of missed opportunities, Lane deals with a divorce by sleeping with strangers and partying with the wild ones. “This next song is about fucking someone you don’t know yet.” She also admitted to moving to L.A. at 18 to meet boys, before having all the single people introduce themselves to the person next to them. “I’m just trying to get ya’all laid.“
Her I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude could come across as crass or shallow, but it’s just the opposite. Country music doesn’t have to be sad. Lane might forego the “subtle” part when writing songs about “life, love, and loss”, but she doesn’t lack anything in the honesty department. She’s not above writing a ballad either. “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That” is one of her best songs and it just happens to be her at her most vulnerable.
Nikki Lane wasn’t quite what I expected. She was better than I expected. There are some that might say she is just trying to distract people from the music by coming on stage half naked , but that would only be the case if the music didn’t stand up against the image. Nikki Lane is an amazing songwriter. She has a great voice and surrounds herself with an incredible band. She’s full of stories that range from an ex-boyfriend who was a real-life bank robber, to the thrill of throwing indiscretion to the wind in the face of tragedy. She is an entertainer, but she also has substance. She might color a little too far outside the lines for some to consider her true country, but whenever I land on my definition, I will make sure it has room for Nikki Lane.
Urban Dictionary ends their piece with the following…
“If we can ever be blessed again by another visionary, a Williams Sr., a Cash, a Cline, or a Miller, maybe things will change. But for now, country music remains a brutally raped and distorted picture of art stolen from the artists.“
That is just not true. We have visionaries. They go by Isbell, Johnson, Simpson, Moreland, and Lane. And they didn’t steal anything from the artists that came before them. They are borrowing the art that came before them, building on it, and giving it back. And you can’t ask for much more than that.
Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars
You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry
I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am
Break My Heart Sweetly
Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore
Lindi Ortega: (partial)
Hard As This
Tell It Like It Is
The Day You Die
To Love Somebody
Daniel Romano: (partial)
I’m So Lost Without You (It’s Almost Like Having You Here)
They Haven’t Found a Word for That Yet
More Love from a Stranger
He Lets Her Memory Go
The One That Got Away
She’d Rather Be Homeless
Gasoline and Matches
Sleep With a Stranger
Love’s on Fire
You Can’t Talk to Me Like That
Gone, Gone, Gone
All or Nothin’
Want My Heart Back
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere