The suits down on Music Row like to tell you, in their oh-so-condescending tones, that country music has got to evolve. The monied sycophants of those suits whose fabulous yet foppish lifestyles are predicated on spins and marketing defend the suits’ stance by uttering proclamations like “nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music.”
The masses buy into it, and we get boy band duos in plaid setting records while euthanizing souls.
The hard truth for folks who want their music meaty, who require that art still be a balm to a battered spirit, is that the suits are right. Music does have to evolve.
The hard truth the suits know and are hoping folks won’t figure out is that evolution is an organic process and not a man-made construct. Art evolves in parallel with the human spirit, and its joys and its pains coincide with the pressure points and pinnacles inherent in a culture.
That’s why the music of Blind Willie McTell and Lightnin’ Hopkins hasn’t died. What they produced was intricately intertwined with the lives being led by themselves and by their listeners. Same goes for Hank, or Johnny, or Waylon. Their sound was sure enough cool, but sounds come and go. Spirits are eternal. The essence of the music poured out by these timeless artists boiled down to spirit, and that’s why it will always endure.
The suits know that. Don’t kid yourselves. They know. And they know that far better music than the dreck they mass produce is readily available. It scares them. That’s why the bombast gets louder, the clichés get simpler, the boobies get more air time and the guys try to dress like a cover model for GQ – Bumpkinville. Because, yeah, an honest pair of boots is always, uh, spiffy.
Music and art must evolve, because the human spirit and mind and heart and soul evolve and they are the fount from which art springs.
The creations the best artists gift us with come straight from their own souls, reflecting the way that their own spirits interpret and interact with the world on all of its wondrous and terrifying levels.
When someone tells you music needs to be honest, that’s what they’re trying to say.
Nobody writing today has honest down more clearly than Jackson Taylor. His sound may not work for everyone, but again, sounds come and go. What you cannot take from him and his band, the Sinners, is that their sound is unique. (read: honest) The baggage of his past behaviors may turn some away, but those who turn deny themselves the opportunity to witness redemption and even potentially absolution firsthand. Jack’s made a career out of using music as therapy, as a way to unleash his demons without self-destructing. He’s also always used it to express the kinder parts of his spirit as well, although songs like “Saved” have often been overshadowed by tracks like “No Apologies” and “Cocaine.” But overshadowed and overlooked are two very different things, and the careful listener has always known there beats within Jackson Taylor’s breast a genuinely intriguing and inviting heart.
Crazy Again offers proof. Not as ragged and angry as some previous albums, although cuts like “Whiskey Drinking Song” make the case that good old Jackass Taylor isn’t altogether gone. And that’s great news, by the way, because songs like this one take balls to record and a backbone of grimly aware observation to sustain. Taylor’s never been short on either attribute; his sense of what makes us all tick is keenly tuned and informs much of the genius his detractors often point to as throwaway gibberish. It’s anything but, and that’s a fact.
It’s been an insane ten-year run for Taylor, encompassing a host of material changes both to the band and to his own personal life. Just as he was finding domestic happiness and an appreciation for home and wife and son for the first time in his life, that marriage blew apart. Won’t go into details here because Taylor’s already told the story with a magnificent strain of threadbare and heartbroke eloquence on his Facebook page. The guy simply does not hide from hard times and harbors no fear of sharing his secrets and his thoughts. Maybe he should sometimes, but it’s not his nature. So for purposes of this review, just understand that what happened to Jackson in Denver was almost enough to blow out his pilot light for good. Devastation is no stranger to his soul, but it’s long been branded a mortal enemy by his spirit. Therein lies the blessing of his music through the years. He can speak of desolation, loneliness, and fear in a way that resonates with the scared little kid hiding in the darkest parts of each of our souls. He speaks with equal impact of the spirit inherent in the best of each of us, and in so doing can encourage and inspire us even when he’s losing.
After that monstrosity of a life event, where many of us who like to call ourselves men would have crumbled, the band went to hell. Guitar player went bonkers, stole equipment, evaporated. Took what seemed like forever to replace him, to find the right fit. Life on the road as part of the Sinners isn’t for everyone. And as wild-eyed and crazy as many think Taylor to be, he and drummer Brandon Burke demand perfection and a certain professionalism. They’re not a party band anymore, and haven’t been for a very long time. When Rance Cox finally hit their radar, he was an epiphany. The personality and demeanor to fit in without knuckling under, and the guitar skills and musical sensibility to hold his own and contribute. The dynamic worked, Jack learned to play bass, and they began to thrive as a three-piece.
“Thrive” may actually be an understatement here; the last couple of years have delivered some of the highest points of Jackson Taylor’s career. Crazy Again marks the first time he and the band have cracked the Billboard charts. They just finished recording a Live at Billy Bob’s CD/DVD, a milestone event.
And the record reflects all of that. There’s less anger on Crazy Again, and more quiet observation. A long time ago Taylor penned these lines:
I’ve lost a little anger and I’ve lost a little rage
I’ve gained a little wisdom
As I’ve gained a little age
That’s part of how anyone paying attention back then knew there was more than met the eye. Crazy Again is the fulfillment of that promise. It’s still barn burning honky tonk, the kind that evolves and grows on a diet of asphalt and greasy food and an undimmed appreciation of the simple things in life. Still packs a punch, just throws a few less of them – and the ones thrown land more effectively. The extra space in the track list leaves more room for insightful and even yearning cuts like “Rain” and “This Ain’t Goodbye,” in addition to more of the terrific covers Taylor’s made it a habit to include. Haggard’s “Makeup and Faded Blue Jeans” flat sparkles here. Throw in another example of Omar Vallejo’s studio excellence, and supporting instrumentation from Dan Johnson (steel), Earl Hinton (acoustic guitar) and Haydn Vitera (fiddle), you’ve got one tasty goulash just begging for your spirit to dig in and share the bounty.
The one thing Jackson Taylor and Brandon Burke and Rance Cox can’t seem to do is churn out homogeneous pretty noise for the masses. They’re too busy living life in 3-D and using their talent and intellect and spirit as a way to help the rest of us understand how it works. Taylor and the Sinners are a perfect example of the way that country music can evolve and resonate with real people facing real problems and coping with real fears and real losses. They’re proof that the suits are lying. Of course, punchlines like Jason Aldean and Florida-Georgia line are proof that the suits know they’re lying, and laughing about it all the way to the bank.
Don’t feed the suits.
Feed your spirit. Find your appetizers where you will, but understand that Crazy Again is main course fare. Watching Jackson Taylor continue to mature and focus the passion he used to throw around with abandon is one of the coolest adventures available to any music fan alive today. This record’s further proof, and the next step on a journey every one of us can appreciate, revel in, learn from, and drink to.
Life writ large. That’s Jackson Taylor. It’s what the suits are afraid of. And it’s pretty damned awesome.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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