Five Unknown Songwriters Who Deserve to Be Heard
Taylor Swift recently won her sixth straight Nashville Songwriters Award, as well as Artist of the Year at last Sunday's American Music Awards. I'm no hater, but let that sink in for a minute.
Photo by Eddie Vargas/Courtesy of Casper Allen Casper Allen, "True American Cowboy"
Six. In a row. Taylor Swift.
I'm no one to disparage her talents. She writes good, catchy songs that stick with people like the sauce on a Memphis rack of ribs. For lots of folks, what she serves up is finger-lickin' good, and that's okay if you're the kind of music fan content with condiments. I prefer some meat on the bone, something that's going to settle in my belly and keep me nourished for awhile.
One can't really blame Nashville Songwriters Association International, the group handing out this honor, for the results. Its award is, in part, based on the number of Top 30 singles a Nashville artist charts in a year. No one in Nashville has had more than Swift for more than half a decade now.
Like I said, I'm no hater. But maybe it's time to infuse some new, young, hungry talent into Music City's musical veins. Here are five unjustly obscure artists who should head there before next year's award is presented.
An Albuquerquian and sometimes Coloradan by way of Canton, Texas, Allen is an up-and-coming folksie, blues wailer. His 2013 release on Goathead Record Collective, Damn Sun, is big-kid music. Listen to a song like "Biscuits & Gravy," ("She likes her daddy all slathered in gravy,...") when you have time to do whatever might come next. You know, the sort of raunchy stuff you ain't gonna do listening to Red or Fearless.
Sparse but effective instrumental backing from Caitlyn Calhoun and Paulina Talle allow Allen's honky-tonk-ready voice to take the spotlight. It's got the sort of backroad gravel that makes you feel the tire tread left on a heart in lines like "And I see the way you wanna cry, but keep that feelin' between your thighs/ I hate to say hello sometimes but I always hate goodbye."
Photo courtesy of Chicken Little!
Criminally, many of this duo's songs of broken hearts and redemption -- and the horrifying prospect of not being able to get the hell out of Oklahoma -- were written in Nashville, right under the noses of whomever was issuing Tay-Tay all those awards.
Emma Berkey and Dave Cuomo's "Tennessee half-pint folk punk" is beautifully preserved on their fine effort No One, Never, Nothing. The CD was released in 2010, the same year Swift was receiving her third NSA. This year they issued Disaster!, another great set of songs, before making Facebook posts suggesting they may be on hiatus or hanging it up altogether.
Now Nashville restaurateurs, I wish them success but hope they don't quit their night jobs. They're engaging live because their musically-trained voices -- an anomaly in folk-punk -- join in such harmonic perfection you'll think you're at an opera (Opry?) house instead of a house show when you hear them sing.
Photo courtesy of Matt Pless
Matt Pless hails from Baltimore, but these days, he lives everywhere. His nonstop troubadouring across the country recalls Woody Guthrie; but Pless's songwriting style is influenced by Guthrie's biggest fan, Bob Dylan.
He probably hates it, but it's hard not to make comparisons. Pless's brunette, wavy locks recall Dylan's Blonde on Blonde moment. Aside from the look, his lyrics have the bard-like precision, wit and impact of early Dylan. He's prolific -- he's released two CDs this year, The Bus Stop EP and Tumbleweed, which is a personal favorite because it features the sort of existential self-knowledge I gravitate to in lines like "life's a high you can't sustain." Listen to the clever rhyme scheme and American themes in "What You Will" and it's like you're hearing the modern reboot of "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Apart from his voice, which runs in higher registers, he's damn near the youngest son of an Elston Gunn.
List continues on the next page.