Archive for May, 2013

Western standard time

kenny sears

Kenny Sears of the Time Jumpers.

Country and Western music will forever be known as the sound that raised heartbreak to an art form. It was a soundtrack readily suitable for taking a swig off a longneck before heading off into a sobbing spell.

Western swing, on the other hand, inhabits the opposite universe. It might just be the cheeriest sound in the cosmos. Song lyrics and story lines occasionally flirt with the blues. But when multiple fiddles, spry guitar and animated pedal steel collectively sweep alongside schooled but equally playful vocals, the effect is unavoidably stimulating.

In short, when Western swing sings, there is simply no way you can wind up in a bad mood.

“It won’t let you feel down at all, will it?” Kenny Sears asked.

And he should know. For nearly 15 years, the fiddler has been at the forefront of a troupe called The Time Jumpers, an after-hours sanctuary band where some of Nashville’s top pickers brush off the more contemporary and commercial demands of their 9-to-5 music careers for weekly performances centered around the Western swing popularized in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

But after two albums, both of which earned Grammy nominations, Sears decided it was time to prioritize the band and send it on the road. That’s no easy feat when your group is 11 members strong and includes a few celebs unaccustomed (but eager) to taking back seat roles in an ensemble that’s not exclusively their own.

“There’s so many of us and we’re all very busy with our own careers,” said Sears, who will lead The Time Jumpers in concert Tuesday night at the Lexington Opera House. “But it seems to be kind of shifting over a little bit now and looking like maybe The Time Jumpers project might end up being something a little bit more than fun and games.”

Among the celebs in the current Time Jumpers lineup are vocalist Dawn Sears (Kenny’s wife), steel guitar great Paul Franklin, bassist and frequent T Bone Burnett collaborator Dennis Crouch, and vocalist/guitarist/Riders in the Sky frontman Ranger Doug Green. There is a big leaguer, too: vocalist/guitarist and multiple Grammy winner Vince Gill.

“We’re fortunate enough to have, in my opinion, two of the greatest singers in the world in the band. I’m talking about Vince and Dawn. I think it just doesn’t get any better than that, vocal-wise. So I’m spoiled. I can’t imagine doing this without them.”

For Sears, Western swing has always been at hand. A Texas native, he grew up on a farm in southern Oklahoma and was surrounded by the swing sounds of Spade Cooley, Hank Penny and especially Bob Wills. Having received a full scholarship from North Texas State University, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music by 1975 and performed as a violinist with the Dallas Symphony. But the lure of the Western swing music he loved trumped classical instruction, so off Sears went to Nashville, to play in the Grand Ole Opry.

“We didn’t listen to classical music much in my family household,” he said. “I was looking for a fiddle teacher when I was a kid, and there weren’t any. So I ended up with a classical violin teacher. That’s how I got introduced to classical music. I learned to love that, too, along the way. I spent some time in the symphony and all that. But the real roots were always in Western swing and traditional country shuffles. That was always my first love.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of college and get to Nashville and start playing that kind of music. Fortunately, for me, I got here at a time when that music was still being played. I moved to Nashville in 1975, so my first job was with Faron Young. I got to work with Ray Price, Mel Tillis and lots of people that were still doing that music. So it was a wonderful thing for me.

“Then there were several years that went by when the styles changed. You know, I like the modern country music, but it just doesn’t touch my heart like traditional music. So when we had the idea to put together this band and play swing, it was like Christmas for me.”

Interest (and the Grammy nominations) for The Time Jumpers’ 2012 self-titled sophomore album prompted the current tour. Beyond that, Sears is confident that the band’s profile will continue to grow. There are obstacles, though. Dawn Sears is undergoing treatment for lung cancer (she still plans on performing with the band in Lexington). There also are  the careers of the other members to consider. But Sears said interest is strong enough to dictate that swing time for The Time Jumpers is far from over.

“I always wished for a career where I could play the music I love with people I admire and then grow old on the Grand Ole Opry. And for quite a while, I’ve gotten to do that. And then here comes along The Time Jumpers, and I just never even dreamed of that. This is just the best of the best.”

The Time Jumpers perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St. Tickets are $45.50 and $55.50. Call 1-800-745-3000, (859) 233-3535, or go to

Critic’s pick 279: Randall Bramblett, ‘The Bright Spots’

randall bramblett“Bad day for a replay, so I’m skipping the downside,” Randall Bramblett moans at the onset of his ninth and newest album of scholarly Southern soul. “Lizard in a whirlwind, monkey in a trash bin, … and that’s just the bright spots.”

Hence the record’s title – The Bright Spots, a record perhaps more blues in tone than in temperament. After all, the aforementioned tune’s sense of despondency turns almost playful once it gets shoved next to looped cowbell chatter, stuttering brass and a massive chorus that spreads the song’s single-word title over the groove like butter on burned toast: Roll. Yep. That’s what you do when the blues hit.

The Bright Spots is a sublime glance at how Bramblett rolls. For more than three decades, he has been the quintessential Southern stylist: a writer with a storytelling ability that favors dark but humane detail, a singer with just enough scratch and weariness in his singing to ignite the soul and blues spirits in those songs, and an instrumentalist whose playing on keyboards and saxophone establishes and expands numerous Southern soul traditions.

All of that holds true and then some on The Bright Spots. It’s Southern. It rocks. But don’t label it as Southern rock in any conventional sense.

In the lighter moments of The Bright Spots, Bramblett summons R&B and soul accents that uphold the music’s deep tradition without pandering to it. Case in point is Til the Party’s All Gone, a suitably sunny reflection that revels in a freedom that is as celebratory as it is effortless (“To be passing through, no one to tell you what to do; wouldn’t that be the way to slide through your lazy days?”).

The sentiments grow more restless as faith becomes tested on All is Well.  There are devils in the wind as the title is uttered in the chorus by a blind man with profound uncertainly. “I lost my keys to the future, I lost my hold on the past,” Bramblett sings over a light, patient, piano-crisp arrangement full of autumnal jazz.

Somewhere between those extremes sits John the Baptist, a slab of earthy spiritualism undercut by the guitar and sitar of longtime Bramblett pal Davis Causey, and a blast of ultra funky baritone sax from Tom Ryan. It all makes for a sermon that sounds cunningly streetwise.

The album’s loveliest – and perhaps most curious – moment is Detox Bracelet, a slow-motion portrait of a runaway life. Images are presented like snapshots of objects and people in blurred motion. But when forced to a halt, the hurt – and, eventually, beauty – of life is revealed (“There are gifts of desperation everywhere”).

And for a record so filled with beauteous, soulful ruminations, those are just the bright spots.

Critic’s pick 278: Steve Earle, ‘The Low Highway

steve earleIf it succeeds in doing nothing else, Steve Earle’s The Low Highway solidifies the veteran songsmith’s reputation as one of today’s most steadfast surveyors of life in hard times. Sure, he chooses to chase such trials down rural highways into small towns, only to then stir the ensuing restlessness that prompts the urge to escape. But the vicious cycle that such journeys entail have long triggered some of Earle’s most captivating songs.

The Low Highway doesn’t so much conform to such a thematic scope as extend it. Perhaps the most extreme – and, curiously, most accessible – example is 21st Century Blues, in which Earle depicts a future largely unchanged from the present. At first, his observations seem almost comical (“No man on the moon, no man on Mars. Where the hell is my flyin’ car?”). But deflation quickly sets in when the utopian visions designed by John F. Kennedy and others crumble into cold realities. For Earle, the future is permeated by the self-centered arrogance of today (“It’s head for the hills, every man for himself. Nobody helpin’ out nobody else.”).

It should come as no surprise that the album’s bleak view of the present often resembles the Dust Bowl of America’s past. In fact, The Low Highway’s title tune is ripe with the imagery of Woody Guthrie. Here, the blacktop Earle travels is like a passage through purgatory, a roadside view of a disenfranchised countryside, its inhabitants and its spirits. “The ghost of America (is) watchin’ me through the broken windows of the factory,” Earle sings with a glib drawl. “Naked bones of a better day as I rolled on down the low highway.”

Calico County is a close-up of the decimated America Earle witnesses – specifically, the rural terrain that is a breeding ground for poverty, ignorance and drug-addled ambivalence. Earle spits it all out in verses of Dylan-esque wordplay over a rolling electric groove (“Friday night dogfight suckin’ on a meth pipe”). Burnin’ It Down then brings the grief out of the shadows to confront the ignition of “10 gallons of gas and a bottle of propane” at the epicenter of the antagonist’s symbol of smalltown grief: the local Wal-Mart.

So vivid is the scenery along The Low Highway that you almost forget the efficient roots-driven support that Earle has been provided by the current lineup of his long-running, the Dukes (amended here to the Dukes and Duchesses with the inclusion of wife/keyboardist/singer/songsmith Allison Moorer and fiddler/mandolinist Eleanor Whitmore).

Their playing certainly eases the journey. But when you’re driving through fire, as Earle does for much of The Low Highway, no accommodations can take your eyes off the flames surrounding you.

In performance: ZZ Top

zz top 2

ZZ Top: Frank Beard, Billy F. Gibbons and Dusty Hill.

It was a dream combination – a ZZ Top concert on Cinco de Mayo. After all, what better day (or way) to celebrate the blues and boogie music that the Texas trio has blasted forth with for more than four decades?

Guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were on a roll Sunday night at Richmond’s EKU Center for the Arts, giving their set list a serious shakeup and having a ball with crunchy guitar workouts full of rootsy, rustic and highly economic drive. Sure, the fact it was Cinco de Mayo probably helped. It certainly gave the trio’s border-radio classic Heard It on the X a greater gravity. But it could have been Arbor Day and ZZ Top would have delivered the goods.

Musically, the 90-minute performance hasn’t strayed much from the elemental, blues fortified grinds the band has always favored. To that end, this was Gibbons’ show all the way. As the trio’s only soloist, he summoned up thick, angular solos that nicely worked off the plentiful boogie grooves at the heart of most tunes. When the music shifted strictly to the blues, as during 1975’s Blue Jean Blues (one of many surprises the band spruced up its set list with), Gibbons’ soloing was more fluid. But at no point did he overindulge. A jam band ZZ Top is not. Instrumental jaunts, and Gibbons’ rich soloing, favored brevity. Only on the still vital blues medley of Waitin’ for the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago did the band slow the melodic flow and take its time. Still, Gibbons’ solo was contained and immediate.

Then there were the hits, most of which have aged well – save for the static, syncopated Legs. The ’80s Eliminator singles Sharp Dressed Man and Gimme All Your Lovin’ possessed a crisp pop efficiency very much in keeping with the rest of the performance, while the ’70s boogie anthems La Grange and Tush (which closed the show) reflected a refreshing level of Lone Star wildness.

But what was featured around all that stole the show. The opening Precious and Grace (from 1973’s Tres Hombres) was unexpected. Ditto for Certified Blues (which was exactly that thanks to Gibbon’s soulful playing), an exquisite relic from 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album and the roadhouse rumble Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings from 1975’s Fandango!

Hill piloted the last forgotten gem, the band’s 1992 cover of Viva Las Vegas, which it seldom performs anymore. It was a crowning, celebratory touch for a boogie band that manages to fashion almost any day – onstage, at least – into a holiday.

The Aussie Austin

sherrie austin

Sherrie Austin

She has championed country music tradition on two continents, secured TV stardom in Los Angeles and even landed a role on Broadway. So what is missing from the career of Sherrie Austin?

How about a crystal ball? Since her primary artistic vocation is songwriting, such a device might come in handy. Maybe then the Sydney, Australia, native would get advance word on what country celeb would be next in line to cut one of her songs.

So far, her track record has been impressive. Artists who have cut her material include George Strait (Where Have I Been All My Life), Blake Shelton (Good at Startin’ Fires) and Tim McGraw (Shotgun Rider). But forecasting how far any artist can go with her music is impossible. And if anyone thinks they can pinpoint a hit before it happens, Austin has some choice Aussie words for them.

“Anyone who says they know is, well… see, I’m Australian. I use a lot of curse words. So I’m thinking now, ‘How do I put this?’ People will want to tell you that they think they know. But they don’t know if it’s a hit. No one does.

“I write with a lot of artists, so you try to structure songs for them in a way that will get them played, that will offer them the most possible opportunities to be heard. So that’s a whole different kind of mindset than just sitting down and writing for yourself. But sometimes those end up being the commercial hits, too. So there is no real rhyme or reason to any of it.”

Austin had her own run at the charts. She chalked up a Top 20 hit in 2003 called Streets of Heaven. But the records and occasional performances she puts her name to (including the one she will give on Monday to close out for the current concert season at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville) are more stylistically spacious.

The songs on her most recent album, 2011’s indie-produced Circus Girl, open up into areas of folk, Americana and pop while her Monday show will present Austin in a trio format with guitarists Shane Hines and Will Rambeaux.

“I love doing the acoustic trio show. I did a lot of band performances through my recording career. But this is the most fun way of performing because you get to strip the songs down and then tell the stories behind them.

You also tend to attract people with these kinds of shows who are real songwriter fans themselves. So the whole thing centers around listening crowds. It’s different from playing a honky tonk with a full band. That is one kind of experience. But this is my preferred way of performing.”

But Austin is equally versed in more elaborate stage productions. Between the success of Streets of Heaven and release of Circus Girl, she spent 18 months in New York performing on Broadway in the Johnny Cash tribute revue Ring of Fire.

“It was wonderful,” Austin said of the experience. “I grew up doing musical theatre. And I needed just a little break from Nashville at the time to go do something new. I met some people who said, ‘Hey, would you like to come do this?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”

Ring of Fire was far from Austin’s first connection with Cash’s music. She opened Australian concerts for the Man in Black while still in her teens.

“I was only 14 at the time. So it was an opportunity I appreciate more the older I get. It becomes cooler with time. Johnny Cash was as huge a star in Australia as he was here. Those shows introduced me and kind of catapulted me to the next step of my career. They were a healthy part of bringing me to the United States.”

So was another show that had nothing to do with music. Austin auditioned for the ‘80s sitcom The Facts of Life while still in Sydney and eventually won the role of Pippa McKenna.

“I was very young and it was a very heavy experience,” she said. “But the show brought me to the United States. My whole family moved. It was kind of the beginning of my career in TV and film and put me in the right place at the right time.

“Being an entertainer is all I’ve ever done. I never did a regular job. I just always acted and sang and wrote. Now, I’m very much concentrating on writing. That seems to be where my heart really is. It’s all kind of tied together in a way. There’s a pattern running through it, but of course you don’t see it until you look back on it. But I’ve been very fortunate to have always been able to do what I love in my life.”

Sherrie Austin Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. May 6 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $30. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to

Still on top

zz top

ZZ Top: Dusty Hill, Billy F. Gibbons and Frank Beard

In the credits for every song on the new ZZ Top album La Futura — listed before everything, in fact, save for the title and running time — are these words: “Performed by Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard.”

If you are even a casual fan of this veteran Texas trio, the repetition of such info might seem an epic overstatement of the obvious. From its early 1970s beginnings as a champion roadhouse blues and boogie combo to its wildly unexpected reincarnation in the ’80s as bearded music video celebs to its present day title of elder Lone Star hipsters, the music and mystique of ZZ Top remain the creation of its founding three members. And if takes a gentle reminder in the credits to all of the La Futura songs, so be it.

For über-bearded guitarist and principal vocalist Gibbons, the mentions are like affirmations of the credo the band has long lived by: “Same three guys, same three chords.”

“Exactly,” Gibbons remarked during a recent email interview. “What you see is what you get, so we’re just keeping expectations in line with reality. The trio format, as espoused by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, keeps things very elemental, basic and vital. That’s been our corner since the beginning.”

At the heart of the elemental sound has always been the blues. The boogie charge of La Grange and the synth-drive rhythms of Legs might have guided ZZ Top through separate waves of stardom during the ’70s and ’80s, but underneath it all has been a lean and powerfully emotive guitar sound rooted in the blues. Gibbons was witness to the sound while growing up in Houston by way of performance exposure to the blues’ most prestigious ambassadors. Deciding which of those inspirations played the most pivotal role in shaping his own guitar abilities, Gibbons said, is a mighty task

“Hard to pick just one. But if I had to, I guess it would be B.B. King. I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old. My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years.”B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”

But along with the blues came a kind of Texan/Mexicali mystique that has come to underscore the band’s image. Some of it is reflected in its appearance — specifically, the sunglasses and majestic facial hair Gibbons and bassist Hill have sported for 34 of the band’s 44-year history. Ironically, drummer Beard is the only member without the waist-length whiskers. The mystique also permeates the music — from the swagger of hits like Cheap Sunglasses and Sharp Dressed Man to the deliciously twisted twang in such overlooked gems as the title tunes to 1996’s Rhythmeen and 2003’s Mescalero albums.

“We have a long standing familiarity with the border and the denizens who live on it and below it,” Gibbons said. “All three of us listened to those powerhouse million-watt AM radio stations that blasted the blues out of Mexico directly into our brains. And of course without las comidas Mexicanas (Mexican food), we’d waste away. Muy sabroso (very tasty).”

But the key to ZZ Top’s remarkable staying power is something much simpler. The band is nearly halfway through its fifth decade without a personnel change, thanks to a chemistry that has become as resilient as the music.

“This is a band that simply likes to play together,” Gibbons said. “Of course, standing as a trio, an odd number helps as there can’t be any ties when a group decision is made. So, if one of us isn’t in accord with the other two, odd man out just goes with the flow. And, since it’s so in fashion to ‘break up’ and then ‘get back together,’ one can think of ZZ Top as being on an infinite tour that just skipped the part where you split. However, we’re really good at getting back together.”

ZZ Top’s visibility also has provided Gibbons with a few side projects, including a recurring role in the TV series Bones, in which he essentially plays himself (“The cast and crew are like an extended family. Gets me out of work for a day, too. Rock on.”) and a recent reunion with his psychedelic pre-ZZ band, Moving Sidewalks (“Going back and experiencing what went down at 16 or 17 years old is a huge kick”).

But life on the road, playing La Grange, Give Me All Your Lovin’ and newer works from the Rick Rubin- produced La Futura is what Gibbons’ performance world orbits around. By all appearances, onstage and off, the ride seems to be as cool as ever.

“It’s a dream job to get out there and play La Grange every night, singing ‘haw, haw, haw,'” Gibbons says. “Don’t get much better.”

ZZ Top performs at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $63.50-$93.50. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

In performance: Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub

paul burch

Paul Burch

Early into the nearly two-hour roots rock joyride Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub engaged in Saturday night at Willie’s Locally Known was a savory tune called Honey Blue.

It grew out of a blast of fuzzy guitar, a syncopated beat that resembled a mild rhumba (the trio repeatedly returned to such a percussive device throughout the evening) and a crisp, authoritative vocal from Nashvillian Burch that was steeped in the concise, emotive delivery of vintage pop. As if this change-up were not enough to showcase the efficient drive that the show favored, Honey Blue then morphed into a brief snippet of the blues/soul staple Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.

The medley summed up everything you needed to know about Burch’s stylistic sensibilities by offering a slice of original, pop-fortified roots rock alongside an example of the tradition-minded song construction that inspired it.

In short, it was Burch’s way of saying, ‘Go ahead. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.’

The model for this kind of musical time-tripping was obviously Nick Lowe. Burch’s original tunes possessed the kind of expert songcraft and split infatuation with roots rock and pop that made Lowe’s early records so distinctive. It could be heard last night in the subtle melodic swing of Little Bells, the retro country propulsion of the show-opening Like a Train and the elegant pop sweep of Waiting for My Ship (all three tunes, along with the earlier Honey Blue, came from Burch’s splendid 2009 album, Still Your Man).

Even Burch’s vocals recalled Lowe’s clean, collected singing, as evidenced by Ballad of Henry & Jimmy and the more vintage country rumble Jackson, Tn.

Beyond that, the show was as casually paced as it was tireless. Burch must have bade the audience good night a half-dozen times before launching into another song. It took Saturday Night Jamboree and Tryin’ to Get to You to finally shut the trio down. Even then, Burch – who was decked out in suit, tie and vest – looked as if he had just hit the stage instead of having ripped through the rock of ages for a couple of hours. Score one for the power of positive pop.

In performance: Justin Townes Earle

justin townes earle

Justin Townes Earle

“Don’t start telling me what to do,” Justin Townes Earle cautioned to a patron barking out song requests Friday night at Buster’s. “I’ve got this thing under control.”

The celebrated songsmith was true to his word. During a brisk 90-minute set – his first headlining gig in Lexington in more than a decade – Earle both played to and against expectations with unassuming authority.

To those who view Earle as an alt-country or Americana artist – a guilt-by-association tag he can’t help but bear as the son of Steve Earle – there were tunes that skirted with country tradition, such as the pedal steel-saturated Midnight at the Movies and the familial meditation Mama’s Eyes. The latter was one of two songs last night (Am I That Lonely Tonight? was the other) to reference Earle’s famous dad (“I am my father’s son. I’ve never known when to shut up.”).

But the more Earle stirred the stylistic pot, using country inspirations as components rather than foundations for his songs, the more playful and intriguing the performance became. A wonderful case in point was Baby’s Got a Bad Idea, one of several works highlighted from Earle’s recent Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now album. The song was a ripe, roots-savvy excursion that emerged from a rural country framework but was driven by a pure rock ’n’ roll charge. The resulting music sounded like a cross between Faron Young and T. Rex.

When Earle strayed completely from country-related turf, you heard a voice with a clear pop vision – or at least you did when the show’s muddy sound mix wasn’t making the songsmith sound as if he was singing underwater.

During the cleaner moments, stylists like Ryan Adams (in his lighter, less Americana-inclined songs) and even Josh Rouse came to mind. But a pop star Earle is not. The wily thematic depth of One More Night in Brooklyn and especially Harlem River Blues – not to mention an especially crafty choice of cover material served as encores (Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia on a Fast Train, The Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait) – placed Earle very much in a musical camp of his own restless design.

The means of a modern-day road warrior

justin townes earle

Justin Townes Earle

Touring artists often measure success in modest but practical terms.

The first reward, of course, is the work itself – preferably, a quantity sufficient enough to allow for touring in the first place. But once the work starts coming in and an artistic identity (and popularity) is present, the focus reverts to less glamorous rewards, like the means of transportations that keep a tour in very literal motion.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               established,the

Take Justin Townes Earle. Since 2007, he has released five recordings of original songs that have increasingly fortified his musical identity among Americana audiences. That’s no meager feat, either, considering his father is the veteran songsmith Steve Earle.

But as he hits the road this spring, the younger Earle is a happy man. Is it because his road band includes longtime Calexico guitarist Paul Niehaus? Could it be the Memphis soul-saturated songs from Earle’s 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now?

Well, the answer is partially yes in both cases. But Earle is also a chipper touring performer these days because the mounting success of his career has made him a higher class of road warrior.

In short, he now has a tour bus.

“Let me tell you, it was definitely a big change the day I went from driving the van most of the time to sitting on a bed in the back of the bus,” Earle said. “So we’re pretty comfortable these days. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Not a big deal, you say? Well, they sure beat the car trips Earle took to Lexington to play the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club more than a decade ago as a complete unknown to play alongside bluesmen Frank Schapp and the late Joey Broughman.

Ttimes have very much changed. An indie EP titled Yuma introduced Earle’s haunting country sound in 2007. The Good Life, which echoed more than a little of the swing and tenacity of giants like Hank Williams without ever sounding imitative, followed in 2008.

Then the grunt work started. The Good Life began a string of increasingly arresting albums for the Chicago indie label Bloodshot. Blues, Americana and severe rural folk inspirations took their places in Earle’s songs. But by the time Nothing’s Gonna Change came along, brassy Memphis soul was providing balance to Earle’s starker, darker songs.

“My songs are just kind of inspired by everyday life and everyday emotion,” Earle said. “It’s everywhere. I always carry around a little note pad. But on the songs I’ve been writing recently, I’ve been making a real effort to sit down to write – just as a practice. Before, I’ve been kind of a cocktail napkin writer for most of my life.

“I definitely had an idea of how I wanted the last record to sound. I’m way too controlling to not have an idea. When I’m writing, I start hearing production and other stuff. Plus, I’m good at surrounding myself with great people. As an untrained musician, I can get a little raw, a little off. So you’ve got to have people around you that kind of pull you back a little, because they’re often out in front where everyone can still see you. And that makes an incredible difference. Any artist that thinks their every idea is brilliant is a (expletive) jackass.”

Perhaps the inevitable and most unavoidable question in surveying Earle’s songs surrounds the inspiration of his father. How big a role does Steve Earle play on a Justin Townes Earle record? The answer is little if any. You certainly don’t hear it within the soul and blues influences that play out on Nothing’s Gonna Change, even though dad is referenced specifically as the lyrics unfold during the album opening Am I That Lonely Tonight?

But advice that father Earle, and other Texas-bred songwriters, offered did help shape the younger Earle’s writing.

“My father told me a few things about songwriting that stuck with me. He would say, ‘Stay honest’ and ‘Don’t write anything you don’t know.’ I really remember him and (veteran Lone Star songwriter) Guy Clark telling me, ‘When you write a song, make sure you want to play it for the next 30 years. You never know what will happen.’”

What will happen in the immediate future will be the recording of another album, which Earle said will probably expound on the soul charge of Nothing’s Gonna Change, with possible nods to the styles of Ray Charles and Ike Turner. The plan is have the record done and released by next winter. But he also doesn’t plan on rushing himself. The songs, he said, will surface in their own good time.

“Right now I’m in a good space. Mostly, for the past six years I’ve been in a good space to build. Plus, I’m only 31. So it’s a good time for me to be out working and doing all these things. But I still have a lot of songs in me. I don’t force them to come out.”

Justin Townes Earle with The Rooster’s Crow perform at 9 tonight at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to

And another thing … Tatsuya Nakatani/Paul Giallorenzo/Billy F. Gibbons

tatsuya nakatani

Tatsuya Nakatani

‘And another thing…’  is a just-the-facts-ma’am mid-to-late week update of live music doings in the area that will surface periodically here in The Musical Box.

Just a few quick items this time around, two of which come to us courtesy of Ross Compton’s Outside the Spotlight of improvisational/free jazz-oriented concerts.

In what is essentially a first for OTS, the series will present shows on two consecutive nights next week.

+ Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani returns to town on May 6 for a concert at the Mecca studios (948 Manchester), with French reed player Michel Doneda (8 p.m., $5). By Compton’s count, Nakatani has played roughly a half-dozen OTS shows over the past decade, including a 2005 appearance with Doneda.

paul giallorenzo

Paul Giallorenzo

+ Then on May 7, the series presents its first show at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. The main attraction will be Paul Giallorenzo’s GitGO. Pianist Giallorenzo is largely new to OTS, but several of his GitGo-ers are not. The lineup will include trombonist Jeb Bishop, who played OTS just last month as part of The Engines, and OTS mainstay Anton Hatwich on bass. Saxophonist Mars Williams and drummer Quin Kirchner round out the band (8 p.m., $5).

billy f. gibbons

Billy F. Gibbons

+ Finally, we’ll post our interview with ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons in a few days as a preview for the band’s Sunday concert at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. But we really felt the need to include here his parting remark, which didn’t make it into the story. Of Sunday’s performance , the guitarist made this promise: “It’ll be a good ’un.”

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