Country music legend Willie Nelson has set the bar pretty high for contemporary musicians, having written some of country's most popular songs and even helping to pioneer outlaw country. He is well known for creating Farm Aid, and perhaps even more well known for the tour dates that fund the operation. Nelson's albums have become some of the best selling for any country music artist, releasing 67 studio albums and 27 collaborations with some of country's biggest stars.
Willie Nelson began playing the guitar from a young age, participating in bands and singing in the church choir. He moved to Washington in 1956 to begin a professional career in music, but became more successful writing songs for others while he struggled to play small tour dates. He retired to Austin, TX in 1971, but found that the city's liberal music scene inspired him to create his own brand of country music. He became Atlantic Records' first country artist and debuted his more laid back, rock-inspired sound (later becoming a part of outlaw country) on his 1974 album, Phases and Stages. Nelson continued to display this sound on 1975's Red Headed Stranger, on collaborative albums with artists like Jessi Colter, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings, and on tour dates that were becoming a huge draw.
The 1978 album, Stardust, showed that Nelson could achieve the opposite of his earlier career by turning country standards into his own hit songs. In 1985, Willie Nelson joined Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash in forming The Highwaymen. The country supergroup released three hit albums over the next ten years and played sold-out tour dates to overly enthusiastic fans. Willie Nelson spent most of the 90s playing tour dates until the release of the smash-hit Teatro in 1998, which featured back-up vocals by Emmylou Harris. Willie Nelson was joined by even more mainstream artists on the 2002 album, The Great Divide, which featured Rob Thomas, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, and Alison Krauss. Additionally, in 2003, he appeared on country megastar Toby Keith's chart topping song, "Beer for My Horses".
Ever the philanthropist, Nelson headlined the 2005 Tsunami Relief Austin to support victims of the the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. 2007 saw a collaboration album between Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price titled Last of the Breed, which was followed a year later by Nelson's solo album, Moment of Forever. Both albums broke into the top ten of Billboard's Top Country Albums.
In 2012, Nelson signed with Legacy Recordings to release both future and curated past recordings. He began his tenure with 2012's Heroes, which featured mostly standards and guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and more. However, it also featured new songs that Nelson wrote with his sons Lukas and Micah. A year later, Nelson followed-up with To All The Girls..., which featured his collection of duets with female artists like Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, among others. The latter album became his 46th album to break into the top ten of Billboard's Top Country albums, as well as his second album to be featured in the top ten of the Billboard 200.
Nelson continued to shine in his career resurgence, with his 2014 album Spirit topping country charts; the first time the musician had done so since 1986.
Few entertainers have attained the iconic status of Dwight Yoakam. Perhaps that is because so few have consistently and repeatedly met the high standard of excellence delivered by the Kentucky native no matter what his endeavor. His name immediately conjures up compelling, provocative images: A pale cowboy hat with the brim pulled low; poured-on blue jeans; intricate, catchy melodies paired with poignant, brilliant lyrics that mesmerize with their indelible imprint. Then there’s Yoakam the actor, who seemingly melts into his roles, impressively standing toe-to-toe with some of the world’s top thespians: Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Nicholas Cage. Add to that Yoakam the entrepreneur and you have a singular talent without peer.
Is it any wonder that Time Magazine dubbed Yoakam “A Renaissance Man?” But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Much has been made that the Kentucky-born, Ohio-raised Yoakam was too country for Nashville when he first sought out his musical fortune in the mid-80s, but the truth is his music has always been too unique, too ruggedly individualistic to fit neatly into any one box. Like the icons he so admires --Elvis, Merle, Buck-- Yoakam is one of a kind. He has taken his influences and filtered them into his own potent blend of country and rock that honors his forbearers and yet creates something beautifully new. As Vanity Fair declared, “Yoakam strides the divide between rock’s lust and country’s lament.”
The long-time Los Angeleno has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, placing him in an elite cadre of global superstars. Yet the sales have never come at the expense of his musical integrity. Whether singing about the twisted wreckage of romance or broken dreams of this hard life, Yoakam brings a knowing, glorious edge to his delivery and stands, in a world of artifice and flash, as a beacon of authenticity. He has 12 gold albums and 9 platinum or multi-platinum albums, including the triple platinum “This Time”. Five of those albums have topped Billboard’s Country Albums chart with another fourteen landing in the Top 10. More than 30 singles have charted, with twenty-two going top 20, including the incomparable hits “Honky Tonk Man,” “Please Please Baby,” “Little Ways,” “I Sang Dixie,” “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” “Fast as You” and “Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” He’s won two Grammys and earned a staggering 21 nominations.
His debut album, “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.,” had critics and fans alike taking notice, heralding a new voice that arrived fully formed with no contemporary rival. With those 10 songs, full of twang and truth, Yoakam led the New Traditionalist movement. From the start, it was clear this jaded, often inscrutable troubadour could put a voice to our thoughts, expressing them better than we ever could.
Over the next several albums, Yoakam morphed from talented newcomer to musical legend. With “Hillbilly Deluxe,” People’s Ralph Novak aptly praised Yoakam for his “uncluttered natural style, with a little rockabilly sob in his voice that harks back to Hank Williams.”
Indeed, as his artistry continued to develop—through such albums as “Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room” and “This Time”--- Yoakam progressed on a singular path. No less than the Washington Post’s Jon Podhoretz declared Yoakam “as serious a country performer as there is today.” Furthermore declaring him, “the best songwriter going.” The New York Times’ Peter Watrous confirmed Yoakam’s much broader role as the eyes of this country: “He fits into a general cultural reinvestigation of things American, including jazz and grassroots rock-and-roll.” Fellow New York Times scribe Jon Pareles compared Yoakam to one of his heroes: “Like Presley, he doesn’t always stay within musical genres; even more important, he makes sure a song’s conflicting emotions all come through. His breakup songs are blue and lovelorn, but angry, too; his rambling-guy songs are footloose but regretful; his come-ons are both seductive and menacing.”
As stellar as his recordings are, his live performances are transcendent (check out 1995’s “Dwight Live”). Upon his appearance at the Kentucky State Fair in 2006, the Louisville Courier Journal’s Marty Rosen declared that “in his best moments, Dwight Yoakam ranks with the scant handful of country singers (or, more accurately, singers in any genre, from opera to blues) who can legitimately be called geniuses.”
So broad is his appeal that he was the only artist to appear this year at both indie rock extravaganza Coachella and at country music festival Stagecoach. His performances, as always, drew rapturous acclaim from critics: “I haven’t yet encountered another devoted love fest like the one Yoakam got this weekend,” wrote August Brown in the Los Angeles Times this spring. “Every alt-kid, rockabilly survivor, Latina hot-rodder and the rest of Stagecoach’s misfits all came under this tent to pay rowdy respect to a singer-songwriter who’s done as much as any to keep the fangs in modern pop-inclined country.”
Yoakam also recently headlined the last night of the CMA Festival in Nashville, marking his first appearance at the event in two decades. The potency of his performances makes him a much in-demand guest on the television circuit. So much so that he holds the record for the most performances by any musical artist on the top-ranked “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”.
But the music only tells part of the story. Over the last 15 years, Yoakam has carved out a niche as one of the top character actors on film.
Starting with a role as a truck driver in John Dahl’s spicy film noir “Red Rock West” in 1992, Yoakam was an instantly mesmerizing presence on the big screen. However, nothing prepared viewers for his riveting appearance as the malevolent Doyle Hargraves in the Academy Award winning film “Sling Blade,” for which he and his co-stars were also nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s award for outstanding performance by a cast. In David Fincher’s box office hit “Panic Room,” as the brilliantly underplayed antagonist Raoul, Yoakam once again seamlessly shapeshifted in front of our eyes. As David Smith for the BBC wrote, “…the film is stolen by Yoakam.” His performance in Tommy Lee Jones’ Cannes Film Festival award-winning “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” was effusively praised for its penetrating honesty. Entertainment Weekly’s Sean Smith told USA Today, “As a character actor, he disappears into his roles. There’s something amazingly natural about what he does. All his characters have this tense undertone to them.”
Yet just when Yoakam appears to get pigeonholed, he deftly transcends categorization. This holiday season he’ll once again display his vast range when he plays the hilarious Pastor Phil alongside Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn in the broad comedy romp, “Four Christmases.” He then returns to action when he reprises his role as the infectiously eccentric Doc Miles with Jason Stratham in “Crank 2: High Voltage,” the sequel to the 2006 smash “Crank.”
There is Yoakam the artist, and then there’s Yoakam the entrepreneur. In typical Yoakam fashion, even his endeavors that start out as a genial gesture at a friend’s behest somehow turn into a brilliant move. In the mid-90s, Buck Owens repeatedly joked with Yoakam about creating something special for the opening of Owens’ Crystal Palace club and museum. In typical tongue-and- cheek fashion, Yoakam created a fictitious brand of biscuits to be served to mark the occasion, dubbed Dwight Yoakam’s Bakersfield Biscuits. Once again, Yoakam’s creative instincts led to something lasting. The initially imaginary Bakersfield Biscuit and Dry Goods Company has evolved into a successful national brand with dozens of products in stores across the country.
At the core of Yoakam’s creative expression, whether it is musical, theatrical or entrepreneurial, is an unwavering desire to articulate human connection. The thread that ties it all together continues to be Yoakam himself, and his devotion to discovery. But we’ll let Yoakam have the final word. As he told Newsweek, “I’m committed to an earnest exploration of life, no matter what medium I’m using.”
Robert Earl Keen:
Among the large contingent of talented songwriters who emerged in Texas in the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Earl Keen struck an unusual balance between sensitive story-portraits ("Corpus Christi Bay") and raucous barroom fun ("That Buckin' Song").
These two song types in Keen's output were unified by a mordant sense of humor that strongly influenced the early practitioners of what would become known as alternative country music. Keen, the son of an oil executive father and an attorney mother, is a native of Houston. His parents enjoyed both folk and country music, and his own style would land between those genres. Keen wrote poetry while he was in high school, but it wasn't until he went to journalism school at musically fertile Texas A&M that he learned to play the guitar. He and Lyle Lovett became friends and co-wrote a song, "This Old Porch," which both later recorded.
Keen made a splash in Austin with his debut album, No Kinda Dancer, self-financed in 1984 for $4500. He moved to Nashville during the heady experimentalism of the 1980s that saw Lovett and k.d. lang hit the country scene, but he soon returned to Austin. Texas landscapes and residents provided him with creative inspiration, as his second album, West Textures, made clear. That album yielded one of Keen's signature numbers, an ambitious crime-spree song called "The Road Goes on Forever."
By then signed to Sugar Hill, Keen recorded a live album shortly after West Textures but waited several years to release a studio follow-up, 1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky. After that album (which contained "Corpus Christi Bay") came Gringo Honeymoon (1994), which merged Keen's story songs with the emerging sounds of alt-country. Gurf Morlix, who later produced albums for both Keen and Lucinda Williams, played guitar. A young Gillian Welch provided harmony vocals.
Once again, after taking his career to a new stage, Keen recorded a live album No. 2 Live Dinner, (1996) and took time to accumulate new material. The 1997 album Picnic, his first for the Arista Texas label, again moved in the direction of alternative country, featuring Keen in a duet with the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, while 1998's Walking Distance featured sparer textures. Whatever production style surrounded his songs, Keen's musical personality seemed consistent, and his live shows, widely known thanks to a touring schedule that often approached 200 dates a year in the 1990s, grew organically, in depth and control.
In the early 2000s Keen signed with the Lost Highway label and released the album Gravitational Forces (2001). He also devoted time to his influential annual concert series and talent festival, Texas Uprising, which took place at several venues around Texas and the Far West. Farm Fresh Onions (2003) and What I Really Mean (2005) were released on Koch.