It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here
Rhinestone suits and big shiny cars
Its’ been the same way for years
We need a change
I love country music. There’s no greater thrill than hearing Billy Joe Shaver send the VU Meter straight into the red. Willie Nelson, Yoda of Hill County Texas, is the patron saint of all that’s good and holy. Buck Owens knocks me sideways and winding. I love Dolly Parton for more than two reasons. Can you improve on Hanks Snow and Williams? I think not. If you don’t love country music, you simply cannot be trusted. Kindly excuse yourself from my presence.
But I love hip-hop music. Chuck D’s voice gives me faith in America. DMX’s growl makes my short and curlies stand up and salute. Scarface’s The Fix gives me a reason to get up in the morning. If there’s a more trenchant record than 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, I’ve never heard it. Can you improve on Ices T and Cube? I think not. If your mind is closed, I am not your friend.
For years, I thought something was wrong with me. These things should not coexist peacefully. The purist gatekeepers will be highly displeased. They will look upon me with eyes of suspicion and disdain. Insert incredulity here. Disapproving friend disapproves. 404 NOT FOUND. DOES NOT COMPUTE.
I was at war with myself. Why couldn’t I just accept my identity and roll with it? I have nothing in common with Eazy-E. I don’t know what a Cold187um is. I may or may not be down with O.P.P. I just don’t know. I’m a white boy from rural Kentucky, for God’s sake. Maybe I should just find my comfort zone and settle in happily ever after. Life will be easier. Assume the position.
But God, I love The Chronic. That record is tight as twin fiddles in a Bob Wills band. SEE? I FIGHT AMONGST MYSELF. WHAT AM I TO DO?
Is détente impossible? Will one of these seemingly disparate musical universes eventually emerge victorious? At some point, will I have to make a Sophie’s Choice?
In a word, no.
Expectations weigh you down. It’s too much world to carry on your back. It feels like wearing a parka in summertime. You best throw that shit off or you ain’t gonna make it. So I stopped caring, cold turkey. I know an albatross when I see one, so I stomped it into powder, pissed on it, and set it on fire. Goodbye and good riddance. And the horse you rode in on, motherfucker. I will like what I like.
I will love The Flying Burrito Brothers and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony equally. I will see your Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger and raise you an N.W.A Efil4zaggin. Why can’t I like Willie and Snoop Dogg? They like each other. I will love Asleep At The Wheel AND Wu-Tang Clan, thank you very much. If I want to hear George Jones followed by Slick Rick, so shall that shit be done. I will play Cypress Hill and Johnny Paycheck back to back as the Good Lord intended. I will bump Ernest Tubb and The Geto Boys and I will feel no remorse. Nary a fuck will be given. Life is Too Short.
Why do I have to choose
And see everybody lose
Walk around and sing the blues
Well darlin’, I refuse.
I don’t hear a qualitative difference between Johnny Cash and Ice-T. Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs is an outlaw classic, but so is The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. GZA is no less a poet than Merle Haggard. I don’t see a world of separation between David Allan Coe and Willie D. Why should I? The brilliance of one doesn’t preclude the genius of another. The guitar is equally worthy as two turntables and a microphone. The delivery system doesn’t invalidate the message. Genre is a figment of our feeble and lazy imaginations. It’s an alphabetical tool used to sell records, not empirical fact.
Bottom line: my wheel house will be round and I will not be cornered. I will like what I like.
And I like Struggle.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Struggle’s maternal grandfather is Waylon Jennings. That makes Jessi Colter his grandmother and Shooter Jennings his uncle. Duane Eddy is also his grandfather. Struggle’s mother sang backup for Waylon. That’s a bone solid pedigree.
Born William Harness in Nashville Tennessee, young Struggle lived two very different childhoods simultaneously. Summers and weekends, he would visit Waylon in Brentwood (an upscale suburb of Nashville). He found himself surrounded by the amenities of fame—five-star hotels, tour buses, recording studios, and big shiny cars. However, he actually lived with his mother in The Nations (Section 8 housing in Nashville), surrounded by police sirens and drugs, living hand to mouth. It was culture shock on a regular basis, one extreme to another and back again. The soundtrack to Brentwood was country. The soundtrack to The Nations was gangsta rap. Young Struggle absorbed both, so it’s only logical they would one day emerge hand in hand. What goes in must come out.
And here we are.
I Am Struggle is the sound of blue collar America, circa 2013. Working 8 days a week, 400 days a year, and barely getting by. Dirt under your fingernails, blood in your eyes, and nothing to show for it. Struggling. Antagonizing purists of all stripes and watching their heads explode. Guitars and 808s, doo rags and cowboy boots. Equally at home in lowriders and pickup trucks. And—define ‘irony’– it has more pedal steel than anything on country radio these days. Let me repeat that: A HIP-HOP RECORD HAS MORE PEDAL STEEL THAN ANYTHING ON COUNTRY RADIO. (Or so I’ve heard. I can’t listen to Top 40 country radio. It just makes me want to stomp on nests of baby birds and set churches on fire.)
I Am Struggle is exactly what music needs: a good throttling. A swift kick to the nads. It screams ARE YOU READY FOR THE COUNTRY? ARE YOU READY FOR ME?
Mr. Purified Country, don’t you know what the whole thing’s about?
Is your head up your ass so far that you can’t pull it out?
The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs
And if you can’t see that, Mr. Music Executive, why don’t you write your own song?
SIRIUS/XM OUTLAW COUNTRY, YOUR TABLE IS READY. PLEASE BE SEATED.
I Am Struggle is a statement of intent. Struggle’s voice is urgent and breathless, like he can’t wait to get his message across. Like his story must be told yesterday. Words fall over themselves.
The presence of Waylon Jennings weighs heavy over the proceedings. His iconic booming voice is the anchor in an ocean of guitars, piano, strings, B3, drum loops, and Struggle’s vivid, cinematic rhymes. At times, it feels like a duets album: Struggle raps the verse(s), Waylon sings the chorus.
‘Jack Of Diamonds’ get rebuilt as ‘Mama (Oh Sweet Mama)’, a tenuous love song for the new millennium. ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’ becomes ‘Crazy’, a Telecaster-heavy master class in flow. ‘Black Curtains’ (based on the Waylon Forever version of Cream’s ‘White Room’) is a treatise on the struggle to rise above. The sublime Waylon And Willie classic ‘Rocks From Rolling Stones’ gets a particularly soulful rendition (retitled ‘Water Into Wine’), complete with Eddy Shaver’s stinging guitar. Struggle is respectful to the originals, but he uses them as templates. The songs become skeletons onto which he injects his own blood and muscle. They become his story, not just history. And due to the wonders of modern technology, it sounds like grandfather and grandson are in the same room singing into the same microphone.
Struggle also shows great hit potential with the 2Pac-influenced ‘Give Me My Flowers ‘. It’s got a hook Rihanna would kill for. Like most hip-hop CDs, I Am Struggle has the requisite guest stars (Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings, Jennifer Jennings Davis, Yelawolf, Panayota, Laura Reed), but this show belongs to Struggle alone. Not once is he overshadowed or outgunned.
Like most hip-hop CDs, I Am Struggle has the requisite guest stars (Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings, Jennifer Jennings Davis, Yelawolf, Panayota, Laura Reed), but this show belongs to Struggle alone. Not once is he overshadowed or outgunned.
The piece de resistance is ‘Outlaw Shit’, a pure unadulterated 5-mic classic. Every note is for the ages. It is, quite simply, the shit. Artists spend their entire careers attempting to reach this level of achievement. Struggle, however, defines it: of attraction?
She said storms will never last,
So I’m looking out the window like, when’s it gonna pass,
I need some cash, I did the math, it keeps sending in subtraction,
Is it fate or just the laws of attraction?
I’ll never know
Based on the Waylon Forever version (and featuring vocals from his grandfather), it’s a heady mix of bravado and vulnerability. It’s country and street, the most perfect summation of kindred spirit (and generational similarity) I’ve ever heard. It’s emotionally wrenching and exquisite.
Waylon Jennings would have loved this record. He was a challenge to the purists of his day, so what’s not to love? No, Hank didn’t do ‘em this way. Waylon didn’t either. You’re not supposed to. I Am Struggle is the sound of taking a grandfather’s advice : “There’s always one more way to do things and that’s your way, and you have a right to try it at least once.” My life, my terms. Because life is Too Short.
And somewhere out there, Waylon is smiling.
You can purchase I Am Struggle at the usual outlets (amazon, iTunes). For more information:
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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