One of Our Own Wins VMG Music Writing Award

Categories: In Print

Note: Kiernan Maletsky is the Music Editor of the Dallas Observer.

William Michael Smith (left, photo by Chris Knight) and David Thorpe
The 11 alternative weeklies of Voice Media Group are responsible for a tremendous amount of music writing: this year, we produced thousands of pages of printed stories and tens of thousands of blog posts. We're proud to present the very best of that work in the second annual Voice Media Group Music Writing Awards.

Each of the 11 music editors around the country selected his or her favorite articles from 2013 in two categories: blog posts and print stories. Then a judging panel comprising Senior Music Editor Ben Westhoff, Houston Press Music Editor Chris Gray and myself voted to pick the winners, who will get a cash prize.

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Five More Musical Texas Politicians

Categories: In Print, Texas Me

Photo by Daniel Kramer
Kinky Friedman and a possible constituent
In this week's Houston Press cover story, you can read about Kinky Friedman's completely serious campaign to become Texas' next Agriculture Commissioner in the November 2014, a position he hopes will allow him to be the state's leading advocate for marijuana legalization. This is not the first time Friedman, a curmudgeonly but warm-hearted jack-of-all-trades for Texas arts and letters, has acted on his political ambitions. His 2010 run for governor drew about as many laughs as it did votes, but at least it was an entertaining few months.

But Friedman is not quite the only Texan to have kept two hats handy, one to toss into the political arena and the other to pass around from the bandstand for tips. Thanks to our friends at the Texas Music Office -- by far the coolest part of Rick Perry's entire operation -- Rocks Off was able to unearth five more.

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Family Man Kurt Vile Seeks "Deep and Epic" Sound

Shawn Brackbill
At first glance, Kurt Vile seems like your typical scraggly-haired, Southern-bred stoner rocker. In reality, however, he's a responsible family man and a focused businessman. He doesn't really smoke pot, and he's not even from the South.

While his sound may be inspired by the folk tunes of the Deep South, Vile is actually a bona fide city kid, raised in Philadelphia. (Turns out, that trademark drawl in his songs isn't nearly as pronounced in regular conversation.)

Earlier this year, Vile released his fifth album, Wakin On a Pretty Daze, whose hazy, psychedelic lo-fi sound is consummate Kurt Vile. His vision for the record was loftier than his past efforts, though.

"I definitely had some kind of epic theme going," he explains, considering his catalog. "I was excited to take that even further with Wakin. I wanted it to be a deep and epic record."

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Cover Story: Two Cozy Alternatives to Bothersome Nightclub Concerts

Photo by Amanda J. Cain
David Bazan at Fitzgerald's in November 2012
Houston audiences who grow weary of their concert neighbors' incessant chatter and smartphone camerawork should absolutely check out this week's Houston Press cover story that takes a look inside the cozy world of living-room concerts.

Inspired by a favorite musician who would be passing through the area but had not booked a date at an area club, Rick Wood, a board member of popular St. Louis Americana station KDHX, offered his own home as a venue for the evening. It went off without a hitch: the musician (former Whiskeytown violinist Caitlin Cary, now a respected solo artist) made more than she would have at a club.

Wood, meanwhile, found a door open to a tidy sideline as a living-room concert promoter. Now his monthly shows even draw the respect of top St. Louis venue owners, one of whom says, "It's always a sellout. "[He does] what, in a perfect world, we'd all do."

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Cover Story: Riff Raff, Rap Game Lon Chaney Jr.

Photo by Amanda Lopez
Who is Riff Raff? Rap Game Stephen Hawking or 21st-century minstrel? Not so long ago, he was just a huge Vanilla Ice fan from Copperfield who may or may not have graduated from Langham Creek High School. One thing is for sure: the former Horst Simco from Houston's northwestern outskirts -- now a tatted-up, fur-rocking, language-bending rap star on the rise who often swears he's an alien -- is very postmodern.

Riff Raff has done such a bang-up job of obfuscating details about his background that the lines between reality, MTV-reality, and outright fiction are even blurrier than in a certain Robin Thicke song. But he also has a new album about to drop, Neon Icon, which means he's about to be even more visible. So Ben Westhoff, VMG Senior Music Editor and Music Editor at our sister paper LA Weekly, put on his sleuthing hat and started knocking on doors to get to the bottom of who this Riff Raff character really is; read all about what he found out in this week's Houston Press cover story, "Becoming Riff Raff."

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Working With Willie Nelson: Houston's Joe Sample Takes Us In the Studio

Categories: In Print

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Photo courtesy of Columbia Records
Willie Nelson in the early 1960s
Working on this week's cover story on Willie Nelson was a blast -- and a blast from the past. One minute I'd be typing and the next the phone would ring.

"Hey, this is Johnny Bush, I hear you're doing a story on Willie. Why didn't you call me?"
Stuff like that just kept happening. Willie's worldwide.

Cover Story:

Mr. Record Man: Willie Nelson, Houstonian

And this week's cover was not the only Willie work in the past couple of months. I also had a long feature in "Willie's birthday" issue of Texas Music magazine that hit the usual outlets April 1.

One part of all this Willie-ing that got left on the cutting-room floor was a highly interesting email from none other than Joe Sample, the extraordinary keyboardist and composer of the Crusaders who himself recently appeared on a Houston Press cover.

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Five Essential Willie Nelson Albums

Categories: In Print, Texas Me

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Photo courtesy of Columbia Records
Willie Nelson in the studio in the mid-'70s, making gospel album The Troublemaker
This week and into next, the State of Texas and the rest of the world will join together in saluting American hero Willie Nelson on his 80th birthday. Rocks Off would certainly like to add our congratulations, but we woke up today -- well, yesterday -- looking to start an argument.

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The standard line in Willie's current bio is that he has released some 200 albums, and recently it sure seems like he has something new in stores every few months. Since 2008, his original, non-compilation titles include Two Men With the Blues (with Wynton Marsalis), Country Music, Willie and the Wheel (with Asleep at the Wheel), American Classic, Ray Charles tribute Here We Go Again, Heroes, and the brand-new Let's Face the Music and Dance. There may not be a stone-cold classic in there, but most of them are above average, and there certainly isn't an outright dog in the bunch.

True, Willie has said before that all he really does these days is play music and play golf. But he's still releasing albums at a clip that -- even considering that the Charles tribute and Two Men With the Blues were largely recorded live in one evening -- would put a man half his age to shame. There are a lot of reasons to admire Willie Nelson, and his laid-back but dogged work ethic is a big one for us personally.

Now, imagine that through some cruel twist of fate, you do not own any Willie Nelson albums. At all. That's where we come in. Of course these are not the only Willie Nelson albums you should buy, just the five we think you should buy first. But please don't stop there.

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David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: The Soundtrack (With Endnotes)

Categories: In Print

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One of Time magazine's Top 100 English-language novels of the last century, the late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a gargantuan book. Its cutting, comedic views cover a broad swath of American life, but focus on family dysfunction, chemical dependency, depression, entertainment saturation and the notion that everything in this country is for sale.

Set in a not-very-distant future, the book's events occur over several years, designated no longer by numerals, but subsidized by corporations willing to shell out the most dough for naming rights. As it were, many of the novel's events occur in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, rather than, say, 2017.

Infinite Jest follows the Incandenza family, Bostonians of considerable pedigree, whose Enfield Tennis Academy is a collective of supremely intelligent students and administrators. They live up the hill from Enett House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. The bulk of the book's characters reside in one or the other. Everyone is broken in some fundamental and hard-to-fix way.

Wallace was the embodiment of the "write what you know" adage. The book's nearly 1,100 pages (and 388 endnotes!) are filled with poetic wisdom on depression. Wallace struggled with the disease for years and committed suicide in 2008.

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Cover Story: Joe Sample Attempts to Bring TSU Back to Relevancy

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Photo by Marco Torres
Teaching jazz at Texas Southern University was probably the last thing on the mind of Joe Sample when the Phillis Wheatley High School graduate returned to his native Houston after tearing it up in Los Angeles for 40 years.

But Sample, who left TSU in 1958 with members of the Jazz Crusaders -- which would later become the Crusaders, a wildly successful band that married jazz with Fifth Ward-inspired funk-rock -- has been doing exactly that since the fall 2012 semester.

Aside from molding talented college students into potentially top-notch musicians, Sample, in a way, has been anointed to lead TSU out of the doldrums.

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Four ScoreMore Tales That Didn't Make Our Cover Story

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Cover by Monica Fuentes/Photo by Marco Torres
This week's Houston Press cover story is about ScoreMore, the Texas-based concert promotion company that has, in the estimation of many, become a vital part of the rap ecosystem in the Southern United States.

For these types of long-form stories, a fair amount of research and reporting is involved. In this case, ScoreMore principals Sascha Stone Guttfreund and Claire Bogle allowed me to be part of their world for six weeks, both in person and in the crevices of their varying inboxes (text, voicemail, tweets, etc), answering approximately 400,000 questions about everything that has ever happened about everything, grand to tiny, since the universe first spat out energy.

As such, there were parts of the notes that, due to space restrictions (and wanting to maintain the general narrative arc), were not included. The four best:

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