The Musical Cream of This Fall's County-Fair Crop

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Photo by Axel Naud via Flickr
Now that's a super moon all right.
If you've been lucky enough to see the so-called "supermoon" the past couple of nights, you know good things are coming: not only cooler temperatures but fairgrounds full of carnival midways, fried foods, beauty pageants, golf tournaments, parades, cookoffs, livestock auctions and top-notch country music. In other words, small-town Texas in all its harvest-season splendor.

Although this season is somewhat overshadowed by that big shootin' match that takes place next to the Dome (which is now just six months away), almost every county that touches Harris is having some sort of officially sanctioned celebration between this weekend and late October; lest we forget, so is Harris County's second-largest city. To salute them, Rocks Off picked out a dozen acts that are worth the short drive outside the Loop to see while eating Frito Pie and drinking light beer from a plastic cup or aluminum bottle. Don't forget those boots, because they might even make you want to dance.


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Welcome to Country Music Time Machine

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carhumor.net
Country music has an interesting relationship with current events. Unlike other forms of pop that deal with one form of fantasy or another -- starlets forever falling in love with that guy who is just out of reach; aspiring rappers' dreams of a ghetto-fabulous lifestyle, for example -- country draws a large part of its credibility from its basis in reality, a direct link to its roots in folk music that improbably remains very much intact.

Now, that may be an idealized, exaggerated or otherwise distorted reality, true, but even the biggest country stars are careful not to put on too many airs lest they be criticized for being "out of touch" with their fans -- a creed that more or less holds true from Hank Williams Sr. and Loretta Lynn through Florida Georgia Line and Kacey Musgraves. Compare that with, say, Kanye or Lady Gaga, whom many people idolize and almost no one faults for acting like they're above the rest of us.

It might even be argued that listening to country music is like reading the newspaper of regular people's lives, which is why thisdayincountrymusic.com is so much fun. The UK-based site itself is an invaluable almanac of country facts, and actually just released a new app for iPhone and iPad this week. Furthermore, the section that allows users to input their birthday to reveal what song was No. 1 on that date also reveals that country music is just like history in a different way: just as sometimes it seems like weeks or even months can go by without something truly historic happening, a lot of songs that reach even the pinnacle of popularity are really nothing special.


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Jayhawks Take Flight Again on Raft of Reissues

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Marina Chavez/UME
The Jayhawks "Sounds of Lies" lineup 1997: Karen Grotberg (keyboards), Tim O'Reagan (drums/vocals), Gary Louris (guitar/vocals), Marc Perlman (bass), and Kraig Johnson (guitar).
At the end of 1995, Gary Louris had a problem. A big one.

His band, the critically acclaimed, Minneapolis-based Jayhawks, was just starting to gain some commercial traction after a decade of existence at the front of the No Depression/Americana/alt-country pack. Their release earlier that year, Tomorrow the Green Grass, was (and is) considered a masterpiece, and single "Blue" seemed to have them poised to break even more.

Then, Louris' fellow singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Olson quit, relieving the band of its co-leader and, more importantly, one half of the harmony vocals that were the band's trademark.

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Nashville Stars Step Onstage But Not Out of Character

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Photos courtesy of Dancy Ware PR
Claire Bowen
It's been several decades, since The Monkees and The Partridge Family, that a television show about fictional musicians has turned its actors into real-life singing stars. Maybe it was MTV's fault, or the flood of reality programming, but the '80s through '00s were painfully short on shows capitalizing on the dramatic opportunities begged by even the most quotidian musician's life. Not until Nashville, ABC's hourlong soap set in the country-music capital, did viewers weaned on American Idol-ish competition shows realize that other forms of music could be ready for prime time too.

True, even without all the music, Nashville would be one of the better dramas on network television. It's a well-written, well-acted, totally immersive window into a glamorous but treacherous segment of American society. Imagine Scandal with fewer skeletons in its characters' closets (but not many), or The Good Wife set backstage at the Grand Ole Opry instead of courtrooms. But Nashville, created by Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, came up with an ingenious twist: on this show, the songs and the characters are for all intents and purposes inseparable.

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The Rocks Off 200: Breelan Angel, Dirty Little Secret Keeper

Welcome to The Rocks Off 200, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too. See previous entries in the Rocks Off 100 at this link.

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Photo by Todd Purifoy/courtesy of Spindrift Media & Entertainment
Who? If there's one thing the Texas Country scene needs, it's more women. For example, on this week's Texas Music Chart, the Top 30 is all dudes, all the way down to No. 34. (Take a bow, Tori Martin's Done Deal). Even pro-sports locker rooms let in lady reporters.

Born and raised in Baytown, Breelan Angel is doing her best to change that. She decided to pursue a career in country music during her sophomore year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, crediting vocal coach Tom McKinney and manager Jake McKim with helping her seal the deal. After a handful of singles ("Halfway to Wasted," "It's My Turn," "Double Standards") dating back to last summer, last week Angel released her debut album, Dirty Little Secrets. She reckons it to be a "good reflection of both Texas and mainstream country"; Angel is right, except her presence in the ranks improves both brands by no small number of degrees.

Angel can send a guy's cheatin' ass packing in a big-time weeper ("She Made Your Bed"), or sit at the bar and shoot trash-talk at the hussy across the room with lines like "honey, trash is as trash does" on "Walk of Shame." Double the twang on an average song from Kacey Musgraves' beloved Same Trailer, Different Park, and you've got Secrets' title track. Pay attention to this one.


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The Mystery of Mary Sarah: Country Music's Next Star?

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Photo by Jim McGuire/All photos courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Many critics believe that for the past few years, country music has been experiencing the kind of artistic bankruptcy that comes along once in a generation. But now something odd is happening, and the unlikely catalyst is a teenager from Fort Bend County who once confessed her "MAJOR" crush on Justin Bieber to this very blog.

Next week, Cleopatra Records will release Bridges, an album featuring 18-year-old Richmond native Mary Sarah dueting with a clutch of Country Music Hall of Famers including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and the late Ray Price. Also on hand are near-Hall of Famers like the Oak Ridge Boys (her early champions), Ronnie Milsap, Lynn Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich (ahem) and a few others.

Frankly, Mary Sarah looks and sounds an awful lot like Carrie Underwood: All-American cheerleader good looks and a voice blessed with not only perfect pitch but dynamic range (which, unlike Underwood, she doesn't overuse). On Bridges, she goes well beyond holding her own against some of the greatest talents in country-music history -- most of whom are admittedly getting on in years -- and pretty much steals the show.


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Rolling Stone's Ridiculous Top 100 Country Songs: The Second Half

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Leon Payne, Hank Williams, Jerry Irby at the Studewood Club, Houston, circa 1950. Payne wrote Williams' hit, "Lost Highway"; Irby wrote "Driving Nails In My Coffin."
Given the spread and the appeal-to-all-age-groups nature of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time," the possibility that the list was computer-generated seems more and more likely.

Either that, or Rolling Stone is farming out its country blog to Best in Texas magazine? There are those ever-present, pesky concerns about advertising revenues generated via record labels that need constant cultivation, you know?

How else can the inclusion of Eric Church, Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves be rationally explained? In particular, Musgraves' track is so new, how can anyone have had the time and reflective distance to pronounce it a classic on par with tunes like "Night Life" or "Mama Tried" yet?

Actually, it looks like a hook in the water -- or an olive branch? -- for the Americana Music Association crowd. But be it human- or cyber-generated, the list has other glaring problems, not the least of which is that a reader has to click on 100 different pages to view it all.


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Rolling Stone's Ridiculous Top 100 Country Songs: The First Half

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Tim Patterson via Flickr
What would Johnny Cash think?
In further efforts to reassure us that it is still relevant, Rolling Stone magazine recently started a country clickbait section called most cleverly (drum roll, maestro) RS Country. I know, the heart pitter-patters in anticipation.

A brief perusal of the site finds basically the same crap, errr... nuts and bolts of most music blogs: lists out the ass. The most recent list that generated beaucoup clicks, errr...intelligent, thoughtful discussion was their recent mega-list, the "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time."

They actually didn't do too bad a job, as these things go, pieced together as they are like Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." But the list didn't even make it through the first ten songs without tripping up on their own set-up blurb, which states a great country song has "twang you can feel down to the soles of your feet."

Pure poetry, huh? Those country folks over at Rolling Stone are pretty quick with their descriptions.


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The 10 Best Country Songs of the '90s

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Remember when there was no such thing as "bro-country" or "hick-hop?" We do, and it was a little time called the '90s. That was basically the best decade ever for country music. Garth Brooks was at his best, and artists like George Strait and Clint Black were killing it with every single move.

Oh, and let's not forget the ladies. Shania Twain, anybody? How about Martina McBride or the Dixie Chicks? And good ol' Faith Hill was just getting geared up. Basically, we'd pay some serious dolla-dolla bills, y'all, if it meant we could get the big names of the '90s country scene to start being awesome again. But since we're not magicians, or billionaires even, we'll have to settle for a Top 10 list of their best songs instead.


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Dolly Parton's 10 Best Songs of All Time

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We really couldn't adore Dolly more. As a songwriter, performer and even an actor, she's proven herself worthy time and again. She holds a number of career milestones -- 25 gold, platinum, and multiplatinum awards, 41 career Top 10 country albums, and eight Grammys, just to name a few -- but more than that, she holds the hearts of country-music lovers everywhere.

So with so many accolades, it would be unjust to make Dolly share a Throwback Thursday list with other artists. She just kills the competition, so we compiled a list of her hits all her own to salute to the country-music legend.

After all, in Dolly's own words, "Its hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world." And we'd just hate to hurt anyone's feelings.


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