Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Luke Bryan's 'What Makes You Country' Reaches No. 1
The country star and "American Idol" judge finds himself atop the Billboard 200 for the fourth time in his career
Luke Bryan's latest album, What Makes You Country, is already on top, landing at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week. The album dropped Dec. 8 and marks Bryan's fourth album to hit No. 1, joining 2015's Kill The Lights, and both of his 2013 releases — Crash My Party and Spring Break … Here To Party — in the honor.
In all, four country albums have topped the Billboard 200 in 2017: Kenny Chesney's Live In No Shoes Nation, Shania Twain's Now and Thomas Rhett's Life Changes. This yearly total is the most for the genre since 2014 when five artists, including Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line made it to No. 1, according to Billboard.
Bryan's chart success was fueled by the hit radio single "Light It Up," which was released on Aug. 23 ahead of What Makes You Country. It also earned the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Country Airplay Chart.
Following his four January 2018 Crash My Playa concert vacation shows in Riviera Maya, Mexico, Bryan will launch his What Makes You Country Tour on Feb. 16 in Springfield, Mo. That will take him through North America and Australia, wrapping July 22 in Twin Lakes, Wis.
Photo: Mason Allen
Behind Old Dominion's No. 1 Hits: How Kenny Chesney, Food Poisoning & "Ballsy" Moves Created Their Funniest Memories
As Old Dominion's latest single "Memory Lane" continues climbing the charts, the country group's Matthew Ramsey and Trevor Rosen look back on the memorable moments behind hits like "Break Up With Him" and "One Man Band."
Old Dominion never intended to be a band. Initially a friend group of aspiring songwriters in Nashville, they formed a collective in 2007 to showcase their individual songs. More than 15 years later, they've become one of country's biggest groups.
With seven No. 1s on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, Old Dominion have proven to have a knack for writing catchy songs. But they don't need stats to show their skill — whether it's the clever juxtapositions of "Written in the Sand" or the bittersweet metaphors of their most recent single "Memory Lane," their songwriting is as charming as it is thought-provoking. Match that with their earworm melodies, and it's almost hard to believe they never thought "this band thing" would take off.
"It took us a while to have confidence in what we were doing, and to make our priority when we sit down to write music [that] we're writing for us," frontman Matthew Ramsey says. "We knew what we were trying to achieve, but then our fans sort of showed us what we are — and that is, a joyous, very genuine thing. And that's what's grown."
The name of their 2023 tour embodies that sentiment: No Bad Vibes. That's also indicative of the energy Ramsey and bandmate Trevor Rosen brought when they sat down with GRAMMY.com, reflecting on their biggest songs with nothing but joy.
Just before Old Dominion released their latest project, the eight track EP Memory Lane — which Rosen teases "is part of a bigger project coming pretty soon" — the pair shared the hilarious and heartfelt memories behind the band's most beloved songs.
"Break Up with Him" (2015)
Rosen: "Break Up With Him" was our first No. 1, it brought us to the proverbial dance. A vivid memory of writing that song: We were playing at a Kohl's company picnic for like 500 bucks in the middle of, what was it, Ohio?
Ramsey: They had hired us to play a, like, lunchtime company picnic. [Laughs.]
Rosen: Most of the people there didn't know who we were or particularly care, but the memorable part of this day was, we were soundchecking, and just started noodling that groove to "Break Up With Him." We just thought it sounded cool, and I think I held my phone up and recorded a snippet of it.
We were driving in the little Ford Econoline van to get to the next gig that night, and it seemed like everyone was asleep. I was on the back bench not yet asleep, and I saw Matt's head pop up over the bench to see if I was awake. He was like, "I was thinking about that song we started writing today… I had this idea for a one-sided phone conversation."
For the next hour, maybe, he just threw out [ideas] like, "Hey, girl, what's up?" And we're whispering because we don't want to wake anybody else in the van up, and we're just like, cracking each other up with these little one-liners. I think we had all the verses and the hook written by the time we got to the next town.
Ramsey: We were at the musicians union in Nashville kind of working that song out, playing it through, and I remember we called Shane [McAnally], and we're like, "You have to come hear this song." We played it for him and he was just like, "What is this?"
At that point, we were very much active in the songwriting world. We were still getting cuts and having hits on the radio with other people, and pitching essentially everything we wrote. That was the first song that we were like, "Don't let anybody hear this. This one is ours."
Rosen: That helped define that sort of clever, sarcastic fun side of us that maybe we hadn't shown as much up to that point — we had shown more of the rock side, and the good songwriting side. I think we realized right away, "Oh, we can shock people into listening to us and show off that side of us." I think it helped define what we were as a band.
"Song for Another Time" (2016)
Ramsey: The moment that stands out for me is when we first played it at a soundcheck as a band. It was written on the road, and we pitched it to Kenny [Chesney], and Kenny said, "This is great, but you should record it."
Rosen: It was [maybe] a polite way to turn the song down. [Laughs.]
Ramsey: That was the beginning of the level of care that he has for us, and the influence he has on us. He is invested in our career, and that was the first moment that he sort of showed that.
We hadn't even thought of ["Song For Another Time"] in that light yet, because in our minds, we were done recording the album. So there was no sense in even considering it yet, because at that point, who knows what's gonna happen with our career.
We were soundchecking to a big empty stadium and we thought, Well, if [Kenny] says we should record it, let's just try and play it and see what it feels like. And, you know, something about a giant PA system and a stadium — the light bulbs were going off. We came off the stage and back onto the bus after the soundcheck, and called our manager and said, "Hey, we need to fly home and record one more song." We flew home, we recorded that one song, and then we flew back out onto tour.
Rosen: The fact that we were able to squeeze that in was kind of crazy. I also remember, we were in Seattle when it went No. 1. We were in this little bar called The Hideout, Matthew and I and our tour manager at the time, Tommy Garris. They had this cool thing where if you order a drink you got a Polaroid picture with it. So we ordered a drink, and they took a Polaroid of us holding up the No. 1 sign.
"No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" (2017)
Ramsey: That song has become one our favorite moments in the set, just because it's such a different feel. And that was one of the first times where we felt comfortable showing our hearts a little bit, and not just trying to craft a plain ol' hit song. It kind of stemmed from our discussions after the Pulse shooting in Orlando.
That song is always going to be relevant. We're always going to have these opportunities to use that song for good. And I always say before we play it, that's the song that we bring to sing with you, not to you. Because I truly feel like there's power in those words.
We were playing in Virginia Beach, and there was again, unfortunately, another shooting that day, just miles down the road, some police officers were killed. So we went on stage that night, and it was kind of a heavy vibe. I spoke to the crowd and said, "This is what this is for. This is why we felt like writing the song, and so here we are. Together, let's try and create some sort of healing if we can."
When the song is over, we always sing that chorus again with the crowd as loud as possible, and it always is this magical moment — you can just feel everybody take a breath.
Rosen: On the lighter side, we played it on the ACM Awards one year. Before we went on, Matthew was joking around, and instead of [singing] "You can't keep the ground from shaking," he was like, [sings] "You can't keep Luke Bryan from shaking." Luke was the host, and he heard it, and he goes — what did he say?
Ramsey: He said, "You don't have a hair on your ass if you don't say that on the TV show." So we did.
After we walked off stage, he was backstage waiting on us, and he was like a kid that had just won the Little League World Series.
"Written in the Sand" (2017)
Rosen: It's one of my favorite songs that we've put out. I remember the day we wrote it. You had written down "stars or the sand." It was like, "That's a really cool juxtaposition." It was fun to sit there and try to come up with the metaphors and be our clever selves.
For some reason when we first recorded that, I wasn't thinking, "This is a single." And the first time we had a good mix of it pulled up in the studio, I remember the moment sitting on the couch and listening going, Wait a second, this is a giant hit song.
Ramsey: I like where we are right now with that song. Because in the live element, we've taken it and expanded it quite a bit. Up until now, in this tour, I don't think we've really showcased our musicianship, and shown what a true band we are. We picked that song to start doing that with, so now there's an extended version, and we just kind of let Brad do his thing, show his capabilities on the guitar. There's a lot of really cool full-band moments in it.
This song kind of defined our relationship with our label, too. Because when we were making the first record, there was no label head — the person who was there when we got signed ended up getting fired. So we made our whole first album just kind of on our own. So when it came time to make the second album, we just operated like we did on the first one. We didn't tell anybody anything, we didn't send any songs.
They sort of knew what we were doing, but that song was written sort of late in the game, and they started seeing the title pop up on the cut list, and they started asking us, "We haven't approved this song, what's going on?" We just kept going, "You'll hear it when it's done, it's great." We turned it in, and they were like, "Oh, wow, that is great." I think they gained a lot of trust in us. And now, they just leave us alone. [Laughs.]
"Hotel Key" (2018)
Ramsey: When we were on tour with [Kenny] this past summer, a lot of his crew, for the entire year, unbeknownst to us — people like to throw hotel keys up on the stage, and they collected all the hotel keys for the entire tour without telling us. Then on the last show, they handed them out to the crowd, and they were like, "When the second chorus starts, everybody throw 'em." So we hit the second chorus and it just starts raining hotel keys.
Lots of times people hold 'em up and I'll grab 'em. Sometimes I'll just shove them in my pocket or whatever, and there was one time I did that, and we finished the show, and we were walking off stage, and one of our crew members comes running up to me. He was like, "Hey, that person you took their hotel key, they accidentally handed you their driver's license." I looked in my pocket, and sure enough, I had this driver's license.
I [also] remember a funny story about the video. The director got food poisoning during filming. The poor guy was, between takes, going around the side of the bus and like, losing it, and then coming back and finishing. After we wrapped up the shooting of the video — which was probably like, 2:30 in the morning — he had to go to the ER to get fluid because he was throwing up the entire time.
Rosen: That's committing to the bit.
"Make It Sweet" (2018)
Ramsey: This was, quite frankly, born out of us being unprepared. We had booked studio time, but we hadn't talked about what we wanted to record, we hadn't shared songs with each other. We had no clue what direction we wanted to go for that third album — we always have ideas, but to go into the studio with no song is pretty ballsy.
Rosen: When you book a studio, usually, it's expensive, so you go in with songs and you know what you're going to do. We booked the studio with no plan. So it's a little bit more pressure, because if you don't end up writing a good song that day, then you just wasted a lot of money. But we wrote ["Make It Sweet"] and recorded it all right there in the same day.
Ramsey: I had some notes in my phone. You've seen you've seen the, like, T-shirts and bumper stickers and stuff that say, "Take the trip," or "Eat the cake," you know? It was that kind of idea that I had — and I did have "Life is short, make it sweet" written down in that [note].
We were sort of playing, and I remember, off the top of my head, just saying, "I know it's a drag, I know it's a grind" — I was just sort of going. And I looked over at Brad, and Brad goes, "Keep going! Yes, whatever you're doing, do it more!"
Rosen: The other memorable thing about that song was filming the video. We filmed it in Malibu and had an expensive location on this hillside overlooking the ocean. It was supposed to be this beautiful view, but this morning [there] was just a ton of fog — I mean, you couldn't see two feet in front of your face. At one point, you could tell everyone was starting to get a little uptight. It seemed like [it] might be a total bust.
After a couple hours, it finally started to settle, and it settled a little bit below the hill, and it was like we were in the clouds. It turned out to be something you could never do on purpose. It was just one of the most memorable days and most beautiful shots.
Ramsey: We still have [the guitar I throw in the video], and amazingly it was not broken. They went down the hill and got it, and it was basically in tune still!
It was a free guitar that they had sent us for the video, so we were like, "Okay, let's just toss it." We've used it since then — we were like, "Wow, that thing's tough!"
"One Man Band" (2019)
Ramsey: That's a career song for us. We just never saw that song [getting] as big as it got. Before it was a single, we played it in Chicago — it was our first arena show. We decided to play that song, and it was such a huge response. You play new songs all the time, and you get a good enough response, usually. But we played that song, and it was very obvious that that needed to be the next single.
Rosen: They were captive, first of all — it was like, you're playing a ballad, and they're all just hanging on every word. And then when you hit the end of the chorus, everyone cheers. And it's like, that just doesn't happen usually.
Ramsey: The video of that one was never supposed to be the video. It was just our videographer, Mason Allen, was filming rehearsal that day. We were just practicing, and he caught a bunch of footage of it, and we put it up because we needed something out there while we figured out what the video was going to be. But the views were just going through the roof, and we were like, "Why would we mess with that? It seems to be doing just fine!" And it ends up getting nominated for Video Of The Year [at the 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards], when it was just rehearsal.
Rosen: We won the [ACM] award that year for Song Of The Year. That was a big award for us, because we started out as songwriters first.
Ramsey: [When we played] Red Rocks [Amphitheatre in Colorado], ["I'll Be" singer] Edwin McCain was there. He was texting me videos a couple days after, and he was like, "What an insane song, and what an insane thing." He's got one of the biggest songs ever, and he's like, in awe of that song. He was even going like, "Man, f— you guys for writing that song." [Laughs.]
"Memory Lane" (2023)
Ramsey: The thing I'm loving right now is the live performance of that song. It's a similar thing to "One Man Band" in that, from the moment it was out and we added it to the set, we start it and as soon as the first line hits, it's the biggest, like, wall of sound of people singing that first line.
I remember the first time it happened, I was like Oh, damn, we got something here. This does not happen. It was way early in the life of that song for that to be happening, so I started to get real confident in the fact that we had a really great song.
Rosen: That song reminded me to follow what we like the best. We have a lot of other songs that we've recorded that I felt like were hits, and there were a couple that I thought maybe were safer choices, but I knew "Memory Lane" was the first one I wanted to listen to when I got in the car. And you don't always pick that one as the single, so I was glad that we went with that one. If we love it, we've been right — that's usually served us well, that our fans and people in general like it.
"I Should Have Married You" (2023)
Ramsey: We're just so lucky, because people like what we do. It's a really fun time in our careers where we're like, Whatever, let's play the new one, you know people are gonna like it!
A couple of years ago, we were in Canada on a day off, and I just started making this little beat, and recorded that piano progression, and then I had it saved forever. I was constantly listening to it and trying to come up with some sort of idea for it, and I couldn't ever land on anything.
I brought it up in the studio, and everybody loves the feel of it. We started going through the title, and I had this idea: sort of a mad song, that was more like, "You would have made me look like an idiot, I would have married you." And that didn't really feel right until somebody said, "What if it was I should have married you?' and everybody's like, 'Oh, what is that?'"
"Some Horses" (2023)
Ramsey: That one's the only song that we've ever recorded that we didn't write. We weren't searching for songs, it just presented itself at the right time and we felt the need to record it.
Shane and Matt Jenkins are both writers on that song, and those guys were part of our group before any of us had anything. We were all friends, we were all broke, we were all trying to figure out how to do this songwriting thing, and we played just countless writer's rounds, trading songs with each other. And that song, over a decade ago, was one that they would play a lot, and we just loved from the first time we heard it.
Trevor and I were talking about the old days and songs that we loved [when] we were on the bus, and we texted Matt Jenkins, "Do you have the demo for 'Some Horses'?" We weren't even thinking about recording it, we just wanted to be fans of it again.
The way they wrote it, it was in the third person and it was about a woman — "she races, she runs." And then one morning, I was at home before I went to the studio, and I picked up my guitar and started playing it. But I changed it all to first person, and just identified with it very deeply.
Shane was in the studio that day, and I was like, "Hey, let me just run something by you guys" — I hadn't talked to Shane about it or anything. I started playing it, and he was, in his very Shane way, was like, "What are you doing right now? Stop it!" He wasn't expecting it, and it's an emotional thing. And I think he identified with it, too, in the way that I had changed the words.
It's an outside song, but we're so close to those guys, and they're so ingrained in the story of this band, that it doesn't really feel like an outside song. Those are our dear, dear friends, and they've been part of this journey the entire time. The creation of this band, and the sound that we create, and the songs that we put out, their fingerprints are all over it. So this was just a different way that their fingerprints are on it.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.