Matt Woods “How to Survive” – by Jon Bartel

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Editor’s note: This part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site.  Jon Bartel fronts Creston Line and is the guitarist for American Dirt

“God don’t bet on football games,” Matt Woods growls on the opening track of his new record How to Survive, and watching his career over the past few years, it’s obvious he’s not hedging any bets on divine intervention in the music business either. There are few artists who work harder, who tour more relentlessly than Woods, as he searches for, as Bukowski put it, “the next line that finally breaks through, finally says it.” Despite (or maybe because of) the long odds, the snow-piled highways and hills, Woods keeps moving, and this newest record keeps his streak alive, following up 2014’s With Love from Brushy Mountain in a bit gentler but equally powerful fashion.

Due for release on October 7, How to Survive blends Woods’ well-worn, musical stylings with a tenderness that seems to be born from the heart of a man who spends a lot of time alone, wrestling with growing older, grasping for something in that fine, misty space between sweet memory and bitter regret.

Recorded once again at Shed 55 in Knoxville, the album opens with a classic Woods-style tune, “The American Way.” Featuring top-notch lyrical content right from the opening lines (“Some men war in the desert heat / daddy fought hard so his kids could eat / workin’ metal in a mill on Industrial Street / we’re still waiting on his purple heart”) the lead track puts its finger solidly on the pulse of current social issues while ushering in the new collection of songs with some familiar fiddle, stomp and swing that will remind fans of other favorites such as “Company Town” and “Brushy Mountain.”

The second track blazes different trails- titled “Fireflies,” the tune tenderly enshrines an enviable couple as the benchmark for bliss; Woods’ lyrics invite an unnamed counterpart to share that same ethereal (and, judging by the songs that follow, ill-fated) shot at long-term happiness. The chorus flirts cleverly with two conceits: “We’d waltz through the Wintertime / Two-step into Spring / Slowdance with fireflies on Summer nights / Fall in love over again.” While many purveyors of the genre Woods slings sometimes privilege simplicity to a fault, there is no lack of depth here. Combining the classic country-western thematic element of dance-as-life with the eastern, Beat-esque movement of the seasons from birth toward demise, “Fireflies” is arguably the standout track on How to Survive, amongst many contenders. Personally, it puts me in mind of Jason Isbell’s “Flagship;” Woods has created a foil that absolutely stands up both lyrically and aesthetically to that of his songwriting contemporary.

“Bound to Lose,” cuts back to a thread (or a string, if you like, considering the song’s continual references to being “tied up in guitar strings”) that runs through much of the lyrical content on this record- the road. While less apocalyptic than Cormack McCarthy’s vision of it, the road in Woods’ songs is indeed one that runs out into a darkness. Both “Bound to Lose” (co-written with Jeff Shepherd, whose album Woods recently produced) and the next track, “Good Man” deal with the transient nature of the artist; and while the former song resignedly glorifies the pleasures of “old guitars and hotel bars,” the latter sets out a sort of obituary for the man who’s pushed the road to it’s limit, quite literally.

“Good Man” bats cleanup in the album order, and with good reason- the song is a hard-hitter. It’s tough not to pause and reflect on the line “He’s lyin’ there as still as he can be / Lifeless on that shoulder lookin’ just like me / It’s the story of a good man / didn’t have a fighting chance / who made a stand anyway / He never got a headstone / most folks could have never known he passed away.” There’s a wide, populist appeal to the song’s central existential query, but for Woods and those like him trudging across the continent year after year, there’s a real question of legitimacy being raised here. Three records in, Matt seems to be weighing two scales against each other- the traditional metric of monetary success that holds the significant weight of that uniquely disgusting American tabloid cult of (im)personality against that airy bronze plate of the artist and his self-recognized, self-loved, self-loathed, always barroom-bared oversoul. Woods’ existential hero accepts death in a ditch but refuses to see it as an unfit ending; besides, snow melts, and somebody is bound to find the corpse, right?

Bittersweet human relationships and the roads that both bring them together and peel them apart run strong as rivers through the rest of the record. Woods works these themes out in song as it seems he’s worked them over and over in his mind as he moves city to city, bar to bar. As with all of his best work, these songs are deeply personal- he admitted last time I spoke with him that he was a bit afraid that those he wrote for and about would have no difficulty finding themselves in the lyrics, and I suspect he’s right. In “Bedsheets” (a track that will be familiar to those who’ve caught Matt’s live shows over the past couple of years) he longs for a reliving of those most intimate moments of a long relationship defined by separation. “Hang our bedroom sheets out on the line / air out all this lonely we been through,” pleads the chorus; to Woods’ credit, it feels like true regret rather than melancholic posturing; indeed, there are a lot of lines on this record that stand up as particularly authentic, and “Bedsheets” is chock-full of them. “You had my word / even though my hat don’t like to hang at home / knowing that these boots would always make me roam / a heart’s a heavy thing to leave behind” pulls exactly zero punches.

As with Woods himself, it’s not all gloom and regret- “Tonight (Don’t Let Me Down)” is a sly grin in the face what sometimes must feel like a bleak routine of unfamiliar barrooms and strange faces, and there are plenty of foot-tapping arrangements throughout How to Survive that provide a welcome glimpse into the true power of Matt’s songwriting ability- whether it’s just the man himself on stage with his signature tobacco-burst Guild and ice blue eyes hollering past the mic into a suddenly tomb-silent crowd, or the swelling pedal steel, sawmill fiddle and lush, verby telecaster of the full band pouring out the hi-fi, these songs are another step forward for a musician who tries his damndest not to look back for too long. God might not bet on football games, but I’ll bet She sure as hell regrets not preordering this record. You’re gonna love it.

– Jon Bartel

Keep up with Jon Bartel by checking out the sites for Creston Line and American Dirt

Micah Schnabel: Music as a vehicle for Truth – by Larry Fulford

Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 - photo courtesy of Holly Rohner
Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 – photo courtesy of Holly Rohner

 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Larry Fulford has spent time on the mic as a comedian and behind the kit as a drummer. He’s a peach of a fellow and we asked him to reflect on a recent show he attended.

 

It was a Monday night, a night touring musicians dread even more than Sunday night, in Chicago, Cubs Country, during a Cubs game, in a city with a bar on every corner, a theater on every other corner, hundreds of ways to spend your money, and I was taking $8 to Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville, a smallish craft-everything bar just down the street from where the Cubbies were playing, to see Micah Schnabel (Two Cow Garage) perform a solo/acoustic set on the second-to-last night of his most recent tour.

A capable two-piece, acoustic singer/songwriter accompanied by an electric lead player, kicked things off. The sound was outstanding but the room itself was kind of stuffy, seated with table service and drinks I couldn’t afford.

Maybe fifteen people sat at the tables, kind of spread out, making their pricey drinks last and nibbling on food I was jealous of. Fifteen in a room that, according to a sign, held forty-seven. It felt more like a cafe than a dive bar or rock club, the kinds of places I was used to seeing Schnabel and Two Cow. But the sound was incredible, so I told myself to hold onto that.

From meager, midwestern beginnings as a simple alt-country outfit that was heavier than most, to a soaring, driving-with-the-top-down powerhouse walking a tightrope over a quarry of punk rock, to saying “Fuck it” and diving headfirst into that quarry but climbing up for air long enough to keep things interesting, I’ve been a fan of Two Cow Garage since I saw them play to an audience of maybe 12 as though it were an audience of 12,000 without a hint of bitterness.

Years later, on an unassuming Monday night in Chi-Town, Schnabel alone took the stage (or place on the floor where a stage might be someday) and, just as I’d seen him lead the charge in front of 12 as though we were 12,000, stepped up to the mic to do exactly what he had come here to do, regardless of outcome or interest.

Except this time, for the most part, he left the old songs on the records, save for maybe one Two Cow Garage track (“Let the Boys Be Girls”) and an I’m Dead, Serious bonus track (“How to Quit Smoking”). The rest of the set I was mostly unfamiliar with, with the exception of a couple songs I’d seen live clips of on YouTube.

And this new stuff, wherever it came from, whatever triggered it, was captivating in the most brutally honest, unafraid to make you uncomfortable, beautiful way.

There were lyrics about uncertainty, about questioning your own identity and the idea of identity, our collective reasons for doing things as simple as making small talk, existence, fear, the illusion of an “American dream,” domestic violence, child abuse, gun control, greed, starving, and finding hope in hopelessness.

Ya know, real cock-sure, glamorous rock ‘n’ roll shit.

Certain lines had me smiling, others had me staring, taking them in, sitting with them, asking myself questions like “How does this make me feel?” and thinking things like “Holy hell.” The imagery wasn’t always easy on the ears, but real art, the good stuff, isn’t always something you necessarily want to hear. But Schnabel’s words kept the room pindrop-worthy and landed as relatable, or at least easy to empathize with, because, subtly, ultimately, the theme of the night was We’re All Just People Here, Flawed and Fractured, Trying Our Fucking Best.

Afterwards, as though nothing had happened, Micah and I and some buddies shot the shit about nothing at all, came up with ideas for t-shirts we’re never going to make, pretended we were friends with Seal.

But something had happened. Something I was aware of even while it was happening. We’d all been temporarily whisked away to Greenwich Village or San Francisco in the ‘60s, when people gathered in rooms that wouldn’t hold more than maybe forty-seven people and turned their attention to someone who was singing or saying things as though he or she had been somewhere we’d never been, and maybe would never dare go, and had come back to us with pockets full of postcards.

It’s been said “the revolution will not be televised,” because it won’t be. Because it’s slow-going and all around us and happening all the time. And it’s not always big, with explosions, castle-storming, chaining ourselves to trees. Sometimes, more often than not, it’s very, very small and personal, like a butterfly a million miles away, flapping its wings.

I was born too late to sit in a smoky speakeasy and watch Lenny Bruce launch verbal cannonballs into the sails of hypocrisy, or Dylan boldly declare outright “the times, they are a-changin,’” but this show gave me what I imagine were similar chills.

The whole “being a musician” thing usually begins simple enough. You want to learn how to play guitar (or drums, or bass, or sing) because you don’t just listen to music, music speaks to you, and you want to know what it’s like to speak that language, even if at first all that sounds like is butchering “Come as You Are” (or “Enter Sandman,” or “I Wanna Be Sedated” or anything-Zeppelin) while your parents knock on the door and ask if you’ve finished your homework.

Your heroes are outcasts, outlaws, rebels who shirked real life in favor of climbing on stages, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, sweating and bleeding and leaving everything “real” behind for whatever reason; money, fame, chickz (or dudez), or purely because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

There are all sorts of reasons someone might start or join a band, but I think at the very core of every one is camaraderie. Whether you’re a misunderstood nerd with Rush posters all over your walls or a nerd-bullying jock dabbling in finding the only acoustic guitar at the house party to wow young ladies with Nickelback’s “Photograph,” there’s a sort of us-against-the-world feeling when you’re playing the role of rock star.

And I use “rock star” figuratively here to describe anyone who’s found a spotlight, be it at a dumpy coffee shop where someone blends drinks over your attempt at quivering out the tritest of trite lyrics about your last break-up, a garage with three friends who also happen to know “Say it Ain’t So,” or a lonely bedroom, sitting on the edge of a dirty mattress, strumming the ever-loving shit out of “Everlong.”

Myself? It couldn’t have been more about camaraderie if I’d known I was going to be writing this article one day and needed it to be. I became a drummer solely because my buddies in junior high were starting a band and needed a drummer, and back then, as now, there were no drummers to be found.

The thing about bands, and music in general, is over time it gets harder and harder to make time. People go off to college, get married, accept offers for “real” jobs, have babies, find Jesus, sometimes all of the above. The odds are stacked against you from the get-go. It’s as though every band is a camel that thinks it’s a tank, and life is a veritable desert covered in sand-colored landmines.

And, if your delicate endeavor does somehow beat the odds and sticks it out longer than, say, other high school garage bands in your graduating class, it’s almost inevitable that, eventually, the reason(s) you came together become filtered through reasons to continue to exist.

Why are we doing this? It’s clearly not the money. It’s not the fame. Chickz? Dudez? Expression? Sustainability? Legacy? Should we start dressing a little nicer onstage so, aesthetically, we look more like we’re in the same group? Where should each of us look in this photo? Did that make us look too depressed? How are we gonna pay for the next record? Why are we even bothering making a next record when we still have boxes of the old record? Do we know any mechanics in Des Moines?

It’s almost as though, to keep it going, you have to cling to some sort of goal, no matter how invented, farfetched, or out of reach, and start being concerned with things like marketing (blech), finding the right manager (blech!), and selling yourself (what in the actual fuck?!).

It’s a long way to the lower-middle if ya wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

Which is why it’s always inspiring when you come across a band or singer/songwriter (or, hell, painter, writer, comic, photographer, etc.) that refuses to be pigeonholed or let fashion and fleeting trends dictate the next thing that comes out of his or her hands and mouth, preferring rather to use their guitars, words, paintbrushes, and cameras as knives to cut out the bullshit and carve their own niche, searching for revelation, revolution, or simply a sigh of relief in the midst of a screaming world, where we all think we’re the centers of our own universes.

Those are the ones keeping the ball rolling. Those are the ones doing more than entertain. They’re fighting a good fight and an uphill battle blindfolded because, to them, it doesn’t matter if they never cross the finish line or get gunned down along the way.

They don’t do this simply because they want to anymore, they do it because they need to, because something in their brains or hearts or guts won’t let them set the tools of their trades down long enough to get a “real” job. There’s something burning inside and no extinguishing the flame. There is only breathing fire.

Some of these people have been at it for years and will be until their last gasps, when you can finally pry their reasons for existing from their cold, dead hands. They’ve missed loved ones’ birthdays, lost jobs, been evicted, had relationships crumble, and none of it has made them choose to slow down because there is. no. choice.

Micah Schnabel is one such “lifer” whose evolution I feel privileged to have had ringside seats for, and Two Cow Garage is one such band. And now, all these years later, when most groups at their level would be paralyzed with fear, carefully calculating what to say next, how to sound next, what to wear next, or deciding maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, Schnabel is all but dismissing the surface, choosing instead to turn himself inside out, more interested in what we as human beings might be trying to hide rather than how we as entertainers look under those precious lights.

And, in turn, he’s writing some of the most important songs of his generation, and the generation after, and probably the generation before, and probably generations to come.

I don’t know how else to describe it.

Important.

I could try to explain it better, like how it kind of reminds me of Salinger with a guitar or Dylan with a sense of humor, but to be fair to everyone I’m name-dropping, Micah included, I’ll stop at “important” and hope you see fit to check it out on your own when he comes to your town or commits it to plastic.

I’d like to think true artists aspire to reach a point where they’re comfortable baring their souls. Some manage to get over themselves and find a way to dig that deep. Even fewer will dig that deep, hit a gas line, stash of marked bills, lava, or worse and still throw enough caution to the wind to unearth it into a song, painting, book, joke, movie, etc.

Micah now goes beyond that. He hits the skeleton of his soul, chips it away and fires the pieces into space with a slingshot.

And now that he’s armed with these new songs and ideas, that run the gamut from friendly reminders to scathing satire, I’ve decided the only thing I enjoy more than listening to him myself is watching people hear him for the first time.

– Larry Fulford
Keep up with Larry on Twitter – @LarryFulford

 

[GUEST POST] CYRUS JAMES – DREAMERS OF THE DAY

The following is a guest post by Laura Allmon, whom I met due to 9B and have shared many a drink with since.
cyrus

Cyrus’ new album Dreamers of The Day fully embodies the sounds that one would expect from a typical Texas honky tonk. When I heard Cyrus’ first album I instantly thought how his music would be a high point in my night if I were to hear it playing on the juke-box in my favorite dive bar or how I would be delighted to stumble into a central Texas dance hall and find him on stage. His strong husky voice is just the sound that makes a Southern woman swoon and every song tells a story and sells the emotions while backed by a sound that makes you feel like scooting your boots across the hardwood.

When I found out his second album was on the way I was beyond excited to get my hands on it. I knew I would be pleased but I did not expect to be this in love with it. I cannot stop listening to Dreamers of The Day. It hasn’t left my CD player since I received it and I tell everyone I meet about him. This album does not disappoint. It offers a variety of upbeat songs that speak to those begging for a lover to see the good side of person such as Bad Man and My Crutch and I Don’t Cry When it Rains. It also has notable tunes that tell the tale of dedication and love while keeping with the great classic country sound and avoiding the mushy pop love-ballad sound that becomes so saturated such as I’ll Be The Whiskey, which is my personal favorite, and True Love (Bonnie and Clyde). Keeping with the classic country sound Cyrus has included on this album Blue Collar, Old Friend (Desperado), Maria, Tumbleweed, and Long Way Down which tell the honest sad stories of life, love lost, and growing.

Perhaps I love Cyrus’ sound and songs so much because I grew up in a rural East Texas town and listened to similar music with my parents and it’s the nostalgia, or perhaps his music just reminds me that there is good country music still available that doesn’t include lyrics about a girl in short shorts on a tailgate being treated like objects, and it gives me hope. I suggest you get Cyrus James in your ears as
soon as possible and improve your life!

Bad Man
I’ll be The Whiskey
Tumbleweed

Cyrus James’ official site