I revisited Sammy Kershaw’s 2017 album, Swamp Poppin’ the other night and thought “wow, how has he not gotten more recognition for his post-major label material?” Heck, I think I was the only blogger/writer who covered that album as well as his 2016 blues album, The Blues Got Me at other outlets.
Kershaw, who was known primarily throughout the ’90s for classic country hits such as “Cadillac Style,” “Yard Sale,” “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” and more, has been compared favorably by fans to George Jones. Of course, even in the early-to-mid-’90s during the neo-traditional boom, it was hard to cut something directly in the vein of Jones and have it be successful. Vern Gosdin had successfully fused Jones’ style with straight ahead honky-tonk on albums like Chiseled In Stone, but that felt more like a closing of the door – the end of an era so to speak (not to mention the fact a 54-year old artist even getting hits while still in his prime is a rare accomplishment).
Basically what I’m saying is, Kershaw, like every other artist then and now, was a slave to the rules of major labels and radio. It wasn’t until 2014 when Kershaw went independent with Big Hit Records that he could record a tribute to one of his heroes. The result was an album by the name of Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones.
Since going independent and seeing the end of his hit-making days, Kershaw has joined that special rank of artists who keep going when the “party” is over. He’s joined a special rank of artists who do whatever the heck they want to do when everything is said and done. From stone-cold country to blues and jazz, Kershaw has experimented with his catalog in ways that are true to him.
When I say Kershaw has “joined a special rank,” I don’t mean to insinuate I know every single artist within said rank. However, as a fan and critic, I’ve watched countless artists continue to impress me with material that’s just as good, if not better, than what they put out in their heyday. Of course, none of that matters in this business. Once you’re old and outdated, that’s it. There’s no possible way you could record something hip and edgy (not that certain artists haven’t tried to embarrassing results).
Take for example one of the first artists I covered on this outlet – Loretta Lynn. The industry tossed her aside by the mid-’80s, so what did she do? She teamed up with Jack White to record an album that was a true evolution of her classic work with Van Lear Rose. Those old, unreleased poems she had kept locked up for ages turned into magical, honky-tonk infused rock anthems that showed a new side to Lynn. It obviously was good enough for something, because in addition to receiving numerous critical accolades, Van Lear Rose also won a Grammy award for the best country album in 2005.
Speaking of “outdated” musicians, Johnny Cash teamed up with hip-hop and rock producer, Rick Rubin to release a string of highly acclaimed albums (known as The American Recordings) that were known as some of Cash’s best work. Beyond adopting a more Gothic-tone compared to previous works, Cash covered a variety of artists across genres in addition to including his own material. On what other album can you hear a Nine Inch Nails song, an Eagles song and a Hank Williams song?
Marty Stuart (sometimes with the Fabulous Superlatives) has pretty much been the textbook example of an artist who was doing things in his own way. Stuart never really had a *ton* of commercial success necessarily, but by 1999, even MCA Nashville must have seen the signs, as they allowed Stuart to release his concept album that year titled The Pilgrim.
The album, which featured a slew of artists including Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and the aforementioned Jones and Cash, is quite literally the story of a pilgrim who lived in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Missouri. It’s been described by critics as the first instance of Stuart caring more about making music that mattered to him instead of collecting a hit song, and while the album fared much worse for him compared to previous works, that’s not really the point here now, is it?
As you can guess too, that album was only the first in a long line of critically acclaimed masterpieces from Stuart, including the neo-traditional Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions from 2010 and his double album from 2014 that blended rockabilly with gospel in Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. Just last year Stuart released a concept album called Way Out West intended to capture the spirit of the West through its instrumentation and production, another instance of a creative stroke of genius.
Speaking of artists who did things their way throughout their entire career, Dwight Yoakam, as I detailed in my piece on the country music business, already knew what he wanted when he burst onto the scene. Before releasing his debut album, Yoakam honed his craft in Los Angeles, away from the Urban Cowboy movement going on in country music in Nashville at the time. He played punk rock venues and clubs with acts like X and The Blasters. He was appealing to an audience vastly different than the one that was tuning into country radio, and the result equated to Yoakam finding his niche and audience. While Yoakam’s commercial success isn’t as debatable as Stuart’s (come on though, two No. 1’s in total), what is debatable is even when Yoakam’s strain of creativity all started.
Did it begin with the aforementioned backstory? Did it begin in 1986 when he released his debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. that took straight hillbilly music and blended it with a forward thinking attitude? Did it begin later on when he released This Time and pushed even more in other musical directions? Or was that fusion more evident on 1995’s Gone? Is his cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” on his 2016 bluegrass album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars the real starting point (and I’ll say it again – Prince and bluegrass)? Maybe the answer is just simply “all of the above.”
Speaking of the class of ’86, Steve Earle is one of the few artists who could compete with Yoakam in the creativity (or “early start”) department. Right from the get-go you knew you were listening to something different with 1986’s Guitar Town, an album that paid just as much homage to blue-collar country music as it did Bruce Springsteen. Copperhead Road in 1988 was even described by Earle himself as the first fusion of bluegrass and heavy-metal.
Of course, one could also argue that his streak of creativity came when his major label days ended (which didn’t take long). From the all-acoustic Train A Comin’ in 1995 to his country-meets-bluegrass-meets punk-rock-meets-all sorts of other stuff magnum opus in 1997 called El Corazón (Spanish for “the heart”), Earle has not given a flying you-know-what about what you think of his music (even if his political material in the 2000s sucked).
On a smaller scale, let’s be honest, king George Strait’s radio success ended more than a few years ago. What did he do in response? Release a surprise album with no promotion at all called Cold Beer Conversation. The second single was released a little bit afterward because eh, who cares? He’s George-freakin’-Strait. Jack Ingram and Sunny Sweeney both returned to Texas after their careers stuttered to release ground-breaking, highly acclaimed projects in Midnight Motel and Trophy, respectively. Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul effectively killed her commercial career in 2001 considering the biggest single from the album … didn’t even chart. Wynonna’s first album in seven years called Wynonna and the Big Noise released in 2016 did just what the title implies – make a big noise! The album, while still released on the same label she had been with since her debut (you really can’t get away from Curb Records even if you tried), definitely is a contender for this feature because it saw her go all in on those blues and soul influences. It was alive and exciting, and more importantly, it was Wynonna. Mark Chesnutt released something true to himself as well that year with Tradition Lives, an album that certainly made up for embarrassing the aforementioned Jones long ago. The Possum would have been proud.
What’s the ultimate lesson here? While not all of these risks paid off for some of these artists, this is a focus on artists who have seen the end of the tunnel that is their commercial streak and proceeded to focus on their lasting legacy. Yes, there of course were other artists who had “done it their own way” all along (look at the outlaws). Again though, this is a focus on artists who had already had a successful commercial career on its last fumes (You may understandably disagree with Yoakam’s inclusion therefore, but again, there’s debate between the actual extent of his commercial success anyway). Instead of wondering how to hold on to a sinking ship, they jumped toward the next chapter, and this is my way of saying “thank you” to these artists as a fan.