Photo: Little Jack Films, Alysse Gafkjen, Courtney Sultan, Bobby Cochran, Bethany Johanna
Country & Western's New Generation Is Defiantly Of The Moment: Meet Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Sierra Ferrell, Bella White & Others
A diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters are steeped in the genre's oldest stylings, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. GRAMMY.com explores what this movement says about country music — and America.
Seismic shifts in music — the kind that reverberate across the social landscape to reveal something essential about the moment, that challenge a dominant narrative, or herald the start of a new era — often rumble the ground for a while before the cultural gatekeepers start to feel it. When the shaking can no longer be ignored, the movement is recognized, and a consensus forms that something important is happening.
Follow Charley Crockett around for a few days and it's hard not to conclude that, well, something important is happening. The itinerant songwriter grew up shuttling between Texas and New Orleans, and calls his music "Gulf & Western" — crisp, hard, insightful songs that blend old country and folk, blues, Tejano, Texas swing, and Dixieland. Crockett is selling out shows everywhere he goes. And the audiences pouring in are from across the cultural spectrum.
"We're breaking through. I got young kids, old timers, s—tkickers, good 'ol boys, hippies, LGBTQ all right up in front," Crockett says after a sold out performance in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In one week in September, he opened for Willie Nelson in New York and played Farm Aid. Now he's headlining a coast-to-coast tour and a European run in support of his new album, The Man From Waco, which dropped Sept. 9.
When asked his thoughts on his surging popularity, Crockett says he hears the same two things all the time: "Number one thing they say is, 'I'd given up on country music until I found you.' Which is really sad to be honest. And two, they say, 'I didn't know that I could like country music.'"
Listen to GRAMMY.com's official Country & Western's New Generation playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora. Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.
Crockett is part of a diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters who are steeped in country music's oldest stylings and traditions, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. Their songs feel both timeless and strikingly original — defiantly of the moment.
Alongside Crockett, Colter Wall is the most widely known artist in this new cohort. The 27-year-old cattle rancher from Saskatchewan has nearly 2.5 million Spotify followers. His music appears on the popular ranching drama "Yellowstone" and on the playlists of Post Malone, Lucinda Williams, and Jason Momoa. All of his releases have been critically acclaimed for their exquisite songwriting, musicianship and old-soul depth. He is a living monument to the genre, making his way across the landscape and timeline before our eyes — and ears — leaving behind music that sounds both everything and nothing like what he recorded before. Two new singles, released Sept. 21, are the latest time capsules.
Other artists are breaking through too. West Virginia's Sierra Ferrell is an otherworldly vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist making a seductive blend of country, bluegrass, and jazz who came up busking on the streets of New Orleans and Seattle. Vincent Neil Emerson is a Texas artist heavily influenced by his tragic upbringing, his Choctaw-Apache heritage, and his early days playing honkytonks in Dallas' Deep Elem. At just 22, Bella White is a songwriting prodigy and emotional alchemist.
It's difficult to put a precise label on this music. By classic definitions, it is both country and western, so perhaps it's best to dust off the term used by Billboard in the late '40s and 1950s, when music from Texas, California and points in between nudged its way into a genre that up until then had been largely Southern. But as Craig Havighurst of MiddleTennessee's WMOT radio says, "Genres are marketing categories. Music organizes itself in communities." He's right.
This revival of traditional country and western music is made up of a community of artists and fans, and it's playing out alongside, and at times intermingled with, other communities supporting a parallel surge of new folk, bluegrass, and old-time mountain music.
So far, the revival has not been embraced by the mainstream country music establishment. Most people you talk to say it's "too country for country," an admission of how far the pop country sound has traveled from the genre's founding ingredients. But in the six years since Sturgill Simpson took the industry to task for "pumping formulaic cannon fodder bulls—t down rural America's throat," an entire ecosystem of independent labels and music platforms has sprung up to support the music, giving it a chance to reach broader audiences, and foster that sense of community.
Independent label LaHonda Records was started by Connie Collingsworth and Travis Blankenship in 2019–as the revival was beginning to coalesce–to put out Vincent Neil Emerson's first record, a collection of jewels that established labels wanted to release the "traditional way," which would have meant waiting a year or more. The two friends hoped their complementary skillsets and work ethic would be enough to do right by Emerson. The album, Fried Chicken and Evil Women, struck a chord and LaHonda has since established itself as one of the movement's centers of gravity. In just three years, the label has also released records by Colter Wall, Riddy Arman, and the Local Honeys.
The community has spawned a litany of supportive entities. Gems on VHS and Western AF are two digital channels posting performance videos by artists from this music community. Both sites see themselves as archivists, preservers of history and seed banks for future generations to draw from. In the meantime, they're acting as vessels for discovery and gathering places — a Grand Ole Opry for a new generation. W.B. Walker's Old Soul Radio Show and Kyle Coroneos' website Saving Country Music are playing similar roles, as is a vibrant festival circuit.
The timing of this revival is a story unto itself, and key to understanding why the resurgence is such an important cultural development. Country music first rose to commercial prominence during the Great Depression, when America was in transition, and crisis, and millions of people sought solace from the uncertainty by tuning their radio dials to the familiar music. In the late '60s and early '70s, when the nation was again sharply divided and in transition, the music circled back in a revival that got branded as "Outlaw Country."
While all music has the power to empathize and heal, this music has always been a barometer measuring the depths of America's shared anxieties, a leading indicator marking our hardest times, and a tonic to treat the pain.
"People find comfort in familiarity, in simplicity," says Dr. Lucy Bennett, an assistant professor of music, media, and culture at Cardiff University in the U.K. "They turn to the traditional, to things that evoke the past. Living in a technologically advanced society as we do, with so much misinformation and not knowing what to trust, there's a yearning for truth and authenticity. This music isn't faked. We can feel the sincerity."
Bennett notes that this current revival isn't a U.S.-only phenomenon — the music is popular across the Atlantic, too — though part of the music's appeal is its emphasis on place. Drawing on tradition, these artists are adept at telling emotionally resonant tales that are deeply rooted in their home regions. In these songs, we feel the connection — not just to their home, but to ours as well.
No one in this generation embodies that tradition better than Colter Wall. Back in 2016, when he was 21 and first garnering attention, he played at an installment of the Skyline Live series in Nashville, and earned a standing ovation from those in attendance, which included Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. After the show, Harris encountered Wall and asked him, in awe, "Where did you come from?" Those present weren't sure if she meant geographically, or something of a more ethereal, spiritual nature. A man of few words, Wall answered either interpretation of the inquiry by simply saying, "Canada."
Listening to Wall's catalog is to immerse yourself into the towns, ranches, traditions, history, and ethos of western Canada. It is to spend time at the Calgary Stampede, in Speedy Creek, Manitoba, with the Rocky Mountain Rangers, to tune your ear to Ian Tyson and the other great country and western artists of the region. It is to understand a different kind of love story.
Indeed, this revival has a decidedly Western tilt to it. Bella White grew up not far from Wall in Calgary. Riddy Arman is in Montana. Kassi Valazza was born in Arizona but is now part of the Portland music scene. Margo Cilker has roamed the rural parts of eastern Oregon and Washington, as have Seth Brewster and Kate Eisenhooth, the duo who make up Buffalo Kin.
"Yellowstone" Music Supervisor Andrea von Foerster believes the inherent sparseness of Western art is also a factor driving interest in this music. She and show creator Taylor Sheridan use music from this cohort in part because of its austerity. "We have very busy lives. Every instant feels overscheduled. This music is the opposite of what we're living," she says. "Our show has the same appeal. Most people don't get to live in these kinds of lazy landscapes and open spaces. It's a quiet in the storm. It's restorative. In times of turmoil, you don't look for bells and whistles, you want bare bones."
It could also be the astounding songsmanship that's drawing in these audiences. Sonically, and stylistically, there are wide variances between these artists. But one thing that unites them all is their songwriting command. Maybe it's what happens when an entire generation, on top of whatever personal trauma they had to endure, were forced to come of age through a string of civilization's brutal failures — 9/11, school shootings, the opioid crisis — but were given Townes van Zandt as an artistic influence. A thousand poets bloomed. When I ran the van Zandt hypothesis past Vincent Neil Emerson, he agreed: "Yeah, it would be like painters discovering a whole new set of new colors."
The truth is, the digital age makes it possible to draw upon just about anyone as an influence, and that's apparent with this cohort too. Despite their relative youth, there's a deep understanding of the country music's niche stylings, sounds and regionalisms. As a result, a new canon is being created alongside the old one, filled with extraordinary songs that are raw, sparse, honest, gut-wrenchingly sad, punchy, hopeful, bare, good-natured, and that feel as if they're rising up out of the ground, infused with something ancient and holy.
Rodney Crowell, a contemporary of Townes van Zandt and one of the Texas songwriters who helped drive the Outlaw revival, believes this new generation is going about it the right way. "They're sticking to their guns. It reminds me of what Guy Clark used to say: 'Focus on being an artist and the rest will take care of itself.'"
The word that most often comes up when talking to people about the appeal of this music is "authenticity," the great yearning of our time, and musically speaking, something fans aren't finding in mainstream country. Anthony Mason, senior culture correspondent for CBS News, and one of the establishment gatekeepers to first recognize this movement when he profiled Crockett back in April says, "There is something pure and genuine and accessible about the music. You can't help but respond."
For many music fans, it's the sad songs that provoke the most powerful response. After years of trying to understand why listening to sad music didn't make people even sadder — something psychologists call the "sadness paradox" — we now know that sad music can relieve a depressed mind. In this light, the music of this revival could be considered urgent care.
Fluent in the language of mental and emotional health, this generation has produced a litany of deeply resonant and sophisticated pain songs, where stories of addiction and grief, suicide, loss and longing are not masked with niceties or polite euphemisms.
When I complimented Bella White on her strength as a writer of pain songs, she laughed and said, "I only write pain songs." Just 22, she demonstrates a remarkable amount of wisdom in her first record. "People my age had to navigate scary things, and we got grown up fast." Her song "Just Like Leaving," for its preternatural self-awareness, is one of the revival's anthems. "Well maybe I just like hurting/Building up walls and then ripping them down with my own disposition." In these unsettling times, perhaps the most universally relatable insight in the song, or any song, comes when she sings, "The bars on my window didn't leave me safe at night."
There's a desperation in lines like that, and across songs such as Wall's "Sleeping on the Blacktop," Margo Cilker's "Kevin Johnson," songs that are more like cries for help, pleas to a world drained of its caring and empathy. At times the desperation shows up as contempt, moral disdain for a system that has failed them so often, like Crockett's "Are We Lonesome Yet," and Emerson's "Letters on the Marquee." If you believe songs can be allegories, listen to Colter's Wall translation of "Big Iron" and imagine the Arizona ranger as a modern-day insurgent, or social movement, sent to topple a power structure, deliver justice, and free people from their fears.
Yet also present in this music, alongside the heartache and rage, is a resilience, a weary confidence that a better, uncloudy, day is ahead. Vincent Neil Emerson's "The Bad Side of Luck" warrants its own consideration as a generational psalm, especially knowing Emerson's heartbreaking personal story, which included losing his father to suicide and a younger brother to a house fire. Listening to him narrate lines such as "I was ashamed to say that I am somebody's son" and "I wasted my time waiting for change" — it is impossible not to feel the weight of sorrow. Until he concludes, "But I came out clean, and there ain't too much I regret," and "Sometimes what you get, ain't the same as the things you expect, so I guess I'll keep fightin' on the bad side of luck till I'm dead."
Maybe that's why the audiences keep growing, why people who don't normally associate with each other are gathering together. It’s three chords and the truth for the volatile 21st century. The music allows us to linger in our pain, which beats being numb, and somehow, measure by measure, line by line, it eases the hurt. And it reminds us, and bolsters us, in spite of the anguish, to keep going.
"It's been a long time coming," Shooter Jennings said of this movement. "It's really inspiring and cool to see it working. We're not even at the peak yet." Shooter is in a unique position to assess its status. Not only is he a country music scion — the only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter — but as an artist he was part of the Red Dirt wave in early 2000s, a musical community helping keep the independent country scene alive during a time when, as he put it, "the landscape was pretty empty."
Today, among many other musical hats he wears, he's producing albums for this rising generation, including for Jaime Wyatt and Kelsey Waldon, and is confident in the direction they are headed. "The country music establishment is soon going to be tasked with a choice. Either get on board and open up the old format, or the old format is going to die. Because these artists don't need it," Jennings says.
Given the infrastructure that has been constructed around them, not to mention a social media and streaming environment that didn't exist in earlier eras, it seems entirely plausible that the movement will continue to grow organically. Earlier in September, Sierra Ferrell won Emerging Act of the Year from the Americana Music Association, a prize that went to Charley Crockett a year ago. All these artists are young and will keep honing their craft, and because of their achievements, more will be coming up behind them. A weary population will continue to need it.
But even with the momentum—and favorable conditions ahead—this generation is intent on defining its own success metrics. Crockett says he now gets calls from people in the business telling him that he can sell out stadiums.
"As if that's what I'm wanting to hear. It's absolutely not," he says. "There's a lot of people selling stadiums out right now that I don't think people are going to remember very much in 20-30 years. Willie Nelson was never the biggest country artist, never, not even at the height of 'Red Headed Stranger.' Bob Dylan was never selling out those stadiums. But all these years later, who are we talking about? Who are we remembering?"
Songbook: A Guide To Willie Nelson's Voluminous Discography, From Outlaw Country To Jazzy Material & Beyond
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.
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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].
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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.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!