meta-scriptVincent Neil Emerson Enters The 'Golden Crystal Kingdom' Of Gut-Punching Country Music |
Vincent Neil Emerson



Vincent Neil Emerson Enters The 'Golden Crystal Kingdom' Of Gut-Punching Country Music

Inspired by several years of life changes, Vincent Neil Emerson's new album, 'The Golden Crystal Kingdom,' tells Western stories that honor his past while keeping a steady eye on the future.

GRAMMYs/Nov 6, 2023 - 02:40 pm

Growing up in Van Zandt county, Texas, it would be easy to say country singer/songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson was bound to follow in Townes Van Zandt’s footsteps, after whose family the county is named. But to Emerson, it never felt like a sure thing. It still doesn’t.

"I don't think I really had a defining moment of that feeling like, oh, I can do this, because everything's so uncertain. It's like anything in life, nothing is really guaranteed," he says.

Emerson’s nuanced, honest songwriting often draws comparisons to Van Zandt, John Prine, and Guy Clark and has earned his songs appearances on "Reservation Dogs" and "Yellowstone." His latest album, The Golden Crystal Kingdom, is produced by Shooter Jennings and out Nov. 10.

Emerging from several years of life changes fatherhood, marriage, and a new band Emerson crafted an album of Western stories that serve as both an ode to how he got here and a declaration of intent for the future. He deftly tackles Indigenous history (Emerson is Choctaw-Apache), reflects on how we live and what we value, and explores the life lessons in love, loss and disenfranchisement.

Drawing inspiration from across the music spectrum – he’s a huge Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Neil Young fan – Emerson’s careful not to sample too much from any one style, choosing instead to focus on honesty, and letting the music serve the story. The result is a set of moving, stripped-down songs, each of which illuminate a small slice of the human experience.

Emerson started his singer/songwriter career as a teenager, getting himself a long-forgotten crappy guitar and jumping in feet first – "I learned three chords and I tried to write a song immediately." Quickly he started busking and attending open mics, gradually building a repertoire of folk song covers and eventually writing the songs for his first album, Fried Chicken & Evil Women.

At the release of his sophomore album, Vincent Neil Emerson, fellow Texas songwriter and producer Rodney Crowell summed up Emerson’s potential to carry on the Texas singer/songwriter tradition: "It’s possible young Vincent will plant the flag of his forbearers firmly in the consciousness of a whole new generation." As Emerson sings in the title track from his latest, The Golden Crystal Kingdom, "heavy is the head that wears the crown."

But it’s not a crown Emerson’s ever going to take for granted. Instead, he’s focused on making good music that’s honest and relatable. Ahead of his album release, Emerson spoke with about finding his voice, the importance of Indigenous stories, writing love songs, and artistic freedom.

The Golden Crystal Kingdom is an interesting name for an album, and for a track. I'm curious where that came from.

I'd rather just leave it up to speculation. I don't want to tell people what it means, let's leave some mystery there. I just want people to have their own opinions about it and not be swayed by what I say about it.

Okay, I can respect that. Can you tell me about writing the title track?

I wanted to write a song as my dedication to the dance halls and honkytonks that I've played over the years. A lot of bad times, actually. But some good times, too.

You said on Instagram recently that you write from the position of somebody who doesn't fit in, because that's how you feel.

I felt like that most of my life. I feel that way a lot of the time. So I'm trying to write from a place that's honest. If you're not honest, some people can never relate to you. I just want to make good art. And the best way I've tried to do that is to be honest about life.

Tell me a little bit about writing "The Man from Uvalde." It's a pretty intense song.

Well I was watching the news [of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX], I was living in San Antonio at the time. And that was right up the road from our house. The melody just kind of jumped out of nowhere, and the lyrics just started coming to me.

I saw what happened to those children. I thought about my son, it’s just a pit in my stomach. I was terrified at the thought of that, and I could only imagine what the parents of those children that lost their lives felt.

Yeah, of course. Has anything changed for you in writing songs since becoming a dad?

I guess not. I'm still trying to figure out how to write good songs.

I think you're doing okay. Speaking of which, what’s the story behind "Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint," the album’s last track?

My wife brought home this stack of old Western comics from the ‘60s. And I read a story about Little Wolf's invincible yellow paint in there. Basically, there was a medicine man who was told that he needed to motivate these warriors and try to convince them to go into battle against people who had guns. They knew they were going to die if they went, because they did not have guns.

He came up with this yellow paint and he said that no arrow would pierce you, no bullet will pierce you; if you wear this paint, you'll be protected. I don't remember the rest of the story off the top of my head, but that's where I stopped writing. I was like, I don't want to paint the end. But I do say in the song "everything is dead," like 12 times.

There's a line in there that says, "keep your prayers that I find my worthy death." There's this idea of a warrior needs like a worthy death, and I literally meant, take your prayers back. I don't need your prayers for that s—.

It's a gut punch of a concept, right? Because we know how that story ends. You don't have to put it in the song.

Then there's the whole idea of being sold something from one perspective, we're being sold this thing that's really not going to help us. And on the other side, maybe it did help. Who knows?

It meant a lot more to me when we made the music video. We had an Indian relay racer named Sharmaine Weed. It feels like it's more motivational — "I have been down but I'm not out yet." I wish I could take credit for [that casting]. But it was actually Mike Vanata from Western AF. It's sort of an old West song, but it really brought it around into modern times putting that imagery behind it.

Over the last couple of years you've gotten more comfortable or more vocal about being Indigenous yourself. Was it just natural to start talking about it more, or was there some motivation there?

Well, I'm 31 years old now. When I first started playing music and playing shows, I was young, I was in my early 20s. People change and grow up and mature, and I definitely have over the years. I wrote all those songs off my first record when I was 22, 23. And I recorded them when I was 25. And finally put it out when I was 27. And I'm still carrying around who I used to be in those old songs.

I'm ashamed to say, but I didn't really care as much about where I came from. I just wanted to go somewhere and be someone else. As I got older, I started talking to my grandmother about things and remembering where we come from and going to powwows growing up and stuff like that. I think it's important to hold on to that. I don't want to be erased. I don't want my family history or my culture to be lost or forgotten. So that's a big reason why I embraced who I am.

You’re getting put on some lists of Indigenous country musicians. Country music is notoriously really, really slow to change. And even when it starts to open up, there's often setbacks. What would you like to see from music in terms of representation and inclusion?

I feel like it’s less of a country album and more of a rock 'n' roll album. There's still some country songs on the album, but I've always loved country music.

There's not enough diversity or inclusion. And there's a lot of great, great Indians in country music and music in general. And we don't really see a lot of those people at the front. It would be nice to see more of that.

What are some of the most rock songs on this album for you?

"Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint" definitely feels like a rock 'n' roll song to me. "Hang Your Head Down Low." I was listening to a lot of Dylan at the time. And I wanted to write a Highway 61 Revisited kind of sound. It just depends on how we play it live too. Because sometimes my guitar player will play more country licks on the Telecaster over the song. And all of a sudden, it turns into a fast paced country song.

I just stopped worrying about what genre it is and just started writing whatever feels natural and good.

I sometimes think journalists and PR people are the only ones who think about this anymore.

Well, genre is very helpful for categorizing things, for promoting things and reaching certain audiences. But there’s certain combinations that come along with each genre of music and certain things that people expect. That’s why I think it gets dangerous for the art, for the artists.

"Dangerous" is a really interesting concept. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Well, I think it's dangerous to the artists, but it's also dangerous to the art. If you’re not allowing people to express themselves or if you're giving them pushback or putting someone down for moving in a certain direction or doing a certain thing that you don't like it hurts. It doesn’t belong. It feels like you're killing off parts of people.

There's a couple of love songs on this album too. And I'm curious where those come from. You just got married, right?

Yeah, I just got married. "On the Banks of the Guadalupe," I wrote that for my wife. It's hard to write love songs. It's hard to write like that and not feel like I'm sounding cheesy.

It sounds incredibly hard. I think it would be a lot easier to write songs about characters, like the album’s open track "Time of the Rambler."

I wrote that song in Shooter Jennings’ basement, while we were recording the album. It was maybe a couple of days in, and I stayed in his basement of his house. And he has a nice room setup down there, you can see the highway from the basement. I was just looking at all these cars and driving up and down the highway. And that's where some of the lines came from.

Where do you find the characters you write about?

Just from how I feel and the things that I've been through and done. Sometimes just taking inspiration from things I've seen and just hanging out in the back of my mind somewhere. I might have seen a movie or maybe I've met someone firsthand who, and told me about some experiences they had, it's all over the place.

Where do you see yourself fitting in that Texas singer/songwriter tradition?

I'm okay with people lumping me in with those guys, that's great. I love all that stuff. I don't think that it's fair to compare any artist against another. Art is so subjective, and it's personal and so open to interpretation. But it's nice to be mentioned in the same sentences as guys like Townes Van Zandt. I'd hate to be compared to him because he's an incredible writer. And he did so much. It's an honor. To have a legendary guy like [Rodney Crowell] come at you and say some really nice things, it just meant so much. 

Country & Western's New Generation Is Defiantly Of The Moment: Meet Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Sierra Ferrell, Bella White & Others

Jessi Colter
Jessi Colter

Photo: Chris Phelps


Jessi Colter's New Album 'Edge Of Forever' Is Timeless In Every Sense Of The Word

On 'Edge of Forever,' the 80-year-old outlaw country star doesn't sound like an elder stateswoman. Her latest could have been released in 1973 or 2013.

GRAMMYs/Oct 31, 2023 - 02:20 pm

As one of the lone women in the outlaw country milieu, Jessi Colter has navigated the music industry with grace for more than half a century — through false starts, lulls, and the death of her husband and collaborator, Waylon Jennings.

But while some living legends can feel a touch frozen in time, Colter is constantly in motion.

"We've just returned home a few days before the Hall of Fame performance, and my house is a wreck," she reports to, upon landing back in her Arizona climes. During a brief  conversation, she's speed-eating lunch and jumping in a car; she even suspects this interviewer was multitasking as well. ("Are you doing dishes?" Colter inquires, in response to an errant clank over the line.)

That consistent movement — of body, of creative practice — allowed Colter to cook up one of her most inspired albums. Edge of Forever — produced by GRAMMY nominee Margo Price, and mixed by Colter's son, three-time GRAMMY winner and five-time nominee Shooter Jennings.

Backed by Price's crack band, tunes like "Standing on the Edge of Forever," "Lost Love Song" and "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" crackle with potency — and have all of the impact of her early work, prior to all these spins around the sun.

But this timelessness doesn't mean it's simply retro, or '70s; it moves through time. Edge of Forever couldn't have happened without the lumps she's taken in the country machine, or the jubilations.

Furthermore, it proves that the hitmaker behind "I'm Not Lisa" and "What's Happened to Blue Eyes" back in '75 remains a force — as a feisty, vital country-music matriarch. Below, Colter chats with about Edge of Forever, and what's on the other side.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Congrats on the release of Edge of Forever. I think the word "timeless" gets thrown around a little too much, but the description fits here.

I had one fellow, I asked him how old he was. I figured he was 20 or 28 and he was 60. I think it was [for] Variety. When I first talked to him. And he said it just has such a feeling that it takes him back to the '70s, and I wasn't sure what he meant exactly. I just am who I am and that's who I'll always be.

But anyway, he loved it. He said it really felt, for him, comfortable. And I understand what he's saying. There's a whole lot out there that's not so comfortable.

Interesting. What do you hope people take away from your music?

Well, certainly that, and I hope I communicate with feelings they've had. I loved it on "I'm Not Lisa," when the little girls would send me tapes of themselves singing it. I thought I have communicated, because when I write it's very inward of my experience or somebody really close to me and so forth. So that's how it goes.

Take us back to your early conception of Edge of Forever — the spark that lit a flame.

Well, I had songs. And I became acquainted with Margo, and she helped me out on a Facebook flash [giveaway] of my book An Outlaw and a Lady, for Harper Collins, that I wrote with David Ritz.

And this was 2015. She was pregnant with Ramona when we cut this album and she was about to have the baby. So as far as the genesis, it took two or three visits together, and [her husband] Jeremy [Ivey] and she both intimated that they would love to see me do an album.

It was years later that we did it. And we did it quickly and directly, because she was about to have her baby. And so it didn't take the kind of time that I'd taken on other albums, but it's taken time to wind its path to the yellow brick road, which seems to be Appalachia Records, who she'd worked with before.

[Label owner Loney Hutchins is] great to work with, and I've never worked with a small label that worked with other indies. But anyway, they've been terrific. And so we just kind of were drawn to each other. And I had these songs that she reacted to, and then there was a couple others, then one written on the spot.

And so it just happened and now it's taken the legal teams, and the manager — this and that, so forth. Anyway, it's worked out. It worked its way to here.

Can you talk about your dynamic with Margo and Shooter?

Yeah, it's fantastic. It's easy. I've worked with Shooter before on The Passion of the Christ, where he wrote on the spot with me. It was an album that went with The Passion of the Christ; It wasn't a soundtrack.

We wrote a song called "Please Carry Me Home." If you haven't heard it, try it, because we wrote it and he produced it on the spot. Then [my daughter] Jennifer [or Jenni Eddy] and I actually wrote "Secret Place," which is on this album, a number of years ago.

Waylon was still with us, and he heard that song — and he didn't often say just this, but he said, "You've got to do that." And it's just been in my pocket.

Often, artists keep songs that inspire them. They don't use them until the time is right. And so there were a number of songs that I had been holding onto. "Lost Love Song," "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." I totally rewrote that spiritual except the bridge.

Anyway, the dynamic was fantastic with Margo, with Shooter, with Jennifer Eddy Jennings, my daughter; her father is Duane Eddy. Waylon was a wonderful father to her. So, it's been a gift; the whole thing has been a gift for me.

Working with Jenni Eddy must have a gift among gifts.

Oh, yes. She's so gifted and a great singer. She just hasn't come into the public yet, but she's working on a number of things.

And Struggle Jennings, my grandson, recorded a great album with her called Spiritual Warfare, where Struggle is rapping. [Jenni] sings, and she wrote the songs, and then he raps. And it's interesting.

I don't know what she'll end up doing. Her voice is much more melodic than mine, and she sings beautifully with me. It would be worth working to her and Jenny Lynn Young accompany me, if and when I perform. It''s magnetic, the whole thing.

As a singer/songwriter myself, even something I wrote a year ago can feel alien to me today. Can you talk about reacquainting yourself with tunes from many years ago?

I understand that, but if you love a song to start with, you'll always love it. And so that's how it went with me.

"Maybe You Should Have Been Listening" was one of Waylon's favorites on my classic albums, and "With or Without You" was something I wrote a number of years back for a girlfriend of mine who went through being stood up by a well-known man right before their wedding.

Little Stevie Van Zandt loved that song: "With or without you/ I'll go on alone… And like Bob Dylan said, if it's not right, it must be wrong." I love that. And if people would remember that. "Angel in the Fire" I wrote some time ago. I love it every time I sing it, with Lisa Kristofferson in mind.

"Lost Love Song" was a song that I held in my pocket to inspire me. It is talking about the prison of love. I never have been able to find who wrote it. He may be living, he may not, because I had this years before Waylon went, which was 2002.

"Hard On Easy Street" was great fun. I did it on an album that I [do not] yet have the right to publish. Never came out. It's a great song. "I Wanna Be With You" is always an upper, and percussionists particularly love that song because it's such a rhythm.

"Standing on the Edge of Forever" was a new song I wrote in the last 10 years [about]a relationship that just won't come together, and that's what that's about. But it's also, as Lenny Kaye edged me on to say, This is it, either or. It's that time you come to and it's enough of whatever it is, get on or get off.

"Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" — oh, that's one of the great songs of all time. James Cleveland wrote it, but I rewrote it. But I don't find to ever get any income from that.It's just a great song talking about how it is. If you're going to do right, you may be alone.

"Fine Wine", Jennifer wrote that with some accompaniment by Margo, and it's talking about early widowhood. And it was how it was maybe four years ago, even though that was a 16-year mark of loss for me, I had been alone for 16 years when I said I'm open for love.

And as things work out and good things happen, I met my current husband, a rancher, horseman from Wyoming, and took it a few years to kind of get to know each other, but we're having a good time.

With Edge of Forever out in the world, what are you looking forward to in the near future?

Right now, I'm looking forward to a documentary I've been working with [a production team] on for eight years. It's called They Called Us Outlaws. Eric Gaberman, partnering with the [Country Music] Hall of Fame did so much research on our time — and the sentinel turn of music in our generation — that I said yes.

[It's a] film coming with so much fact, and then he brings it into the present. Those that have a mindset more to try to do what they wrote and how they did it. And the "outlaws" was more or less a branding in a time that branding wasn't even known, and it stuck. So, it's been useful to a lot of new artists coming with new sounds.

Jessi Colter

*Jessi Colter. Photo: Chris Phelps*

You've lived through so many epochs in the music industry, When you look back on your decades in the industry — all the triumphs and losses — what do you think of?

Well, there have certainly been chances. Don Was ran into us at the Crazy Horse in Orange County. He showed up in the dark, and scared me because I didn't know who he was. While Waylon was doing the show, and he just talked a minute and said, "You know what, Jessi? The '70s were so much fun."

There was something about that that was the beginning of a lot, but it was the ending of something. It was a major turn with the University in Austin having been exposed to a lot of rock. So when Waylon and Willie came with their sound there, they reacted more like a rock group — Waylon did not cross boundaries in those days. You didn't do it. The companies wouldn't allow it.

So, it was an amazing procedure that took place and we were so glad to be part of it. Since then, it's kind of rolled with the punches, and Americana has gotten its feet.

And Shooter has been miraculous in some of the things that he's yielded already. But Waylon and he both don't go for prizes. They do help you, but you have to have that creative want to.

When he was 16, he didn't want a car; he wanted Pro Tools. So, he started early on his path and is doing great. He was a little before his time in performance and then working through being the son of Waylon Jennings, he worked through that and did great.

He loved his father dearly, and he now is a great spokesman for his father, which I love. But all in all, we'll just have to wait and see what's going to happen around the corner.

On You're The One, Rhiannon Giddens' Craft Finds A Natural Outgrowth: Songwriting

country and western's new generation
(From left) Colter Wall, Sierra Ferrell, Vincent Neil Emerson, Charley Crockett, Bella White

Photo: Little Jack Films, Alysse Gafkjen, Courtney SultanBobby 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. explores what this movement says about country music — and America.

GRAMMYs/Sep 26, 2022 - 04:42 pm

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'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

Shooter Jennings


Behind The Board: Shooter Jennings On Growing Up In Music, His Dad's Best Advice & Producing Great Records

The GRAMMY-winning producer, who has recently made albums with the likes of Brandi Carlile, Tanya Tucker and Marilyn Manson, takes on his journey Behind The Board

GRAMMYs/May 4, 2020 - 11:58 pm

GRAMMY-winning producer Shooter Jennings hit the ground running, born into a family of musical royalty with parents Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings. And Shooter has taken what he learned from those early experiences and turned them into a spectacular career as a producer. In the latest episode of Behind The Board, we learn more about his journey and how he's never done learning from the artists he works with in the studio.

"I learn from every record that I do. I'm very fortunate because I'm getting all this knowledge from other creative people that serves me in other areas, and I love that," he said. "I'm really respectful of the fact that they take me into their band. Getting to jump in and get in the mix is addictive. It's really fun. It's kinda like going on a date, a first date where you really like the girl [laughs]."

Shooter talked about learning from his experiences growing up on the road and in the studio and how it's led him to a life of learning from the artists he works with, each one offering something different to teach him.

"All the records that I've worked on this year have had their own special experiences," he said. Shooter produced Brandi Carlile's By The Way, I Forgive You album followed by Tanya Tucker's Whille I'm Livin', both of which earned GRAMMY Awards. Most recently, Shooter has gone back to his hard rock roots, producing the latest album by 4-time GRAMMY nominee Marilyn Manson, a project that had a huge impact on his career and life.

"The Marilyn Manson record was hands down the most big journey I've ever been on," he said. "It's really this poetic journey with him, and it's like this wheel of chaos that has been spinning for a year and a half of my life that I love. My life is completely different because of that record." 

In the video above, Jennings also discusses what makes a perfect record and reveals the best advice his father ever gave him.

"My dad said to me when I was younger, 'Don't ever try to be like anyone else, because you're never gonna be,'" Shooter shared. "It took a long time for me to really get that, you know. But, that to me has always stood the test of time."

Behind The Board: Catch Up With Afrobeats Hitmaker Kel P In Nigera To Talk Music Production

Margo Price

Margo Price

Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns


2019 Outlaw Country Cruise With Margo Price, Lucinda Williams & More

Looking for a country-style getaway at sea? Join more than 30 acts aboard this cruise to the Bahamas next year

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2018 - 03:00 am

While country music is often associated with places like Nashville, Tenn., or Austin, Texas, there's no reason the genre can't bust out of its Midwest boundaries and set sail to places like the Bahamas. If you hop aboard the 2019 Outlaw Country Cruise, that's exactly where you'll find yourself.

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On April 18, Sixthman and Renegade Circus, the companies behind the Outlaw Country Cruise experience, announced the full lineup for next year's edition of the popular country- and Americana-themed cruise. It features 35 artists, including Drive-By Truckers, Margo Price, Lucinda Williams, Bobby Bare, Steve Earle & The Dukes, the Flatlanders, Nikki Lane, Old 97's, Shooter Jennings, and Elizabeth Cook, among others.

In addition to unforgettable live music, the cruise will also provide "special collaborations, artist-hosted activities, [their] signature SiriusXM Sessions at Sea (hosted by some of your favorite Outlaw Country hosts), and more."

The Outlaw Country Cruise will set sail for the fourth time on the Norwegian Pearl from Tampa, Fla., to Great Stirrup Cay and Nassau in the Bahamas. The ship will depart Jan. 27, 2019, and return Feb. 1.

If you're ready to take your love of country music to the high seas, pre-sale tickets are available via the cruise's website, with general admission opening on May 4.

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