Tyler Hubbard has the pedigree, but right now it’s all about the new chapter, which sees his second solo album imminent, writes Samuel J. Fell

[Originally published in CountryTown (online), March 2024]

Tyler Hubbard throws a mean cornhole. I see him play, with a couple of rowdy country music radio DJs after their interview, as I sit in the media area backstage at last weekend’s CMC Rocks, waiting to interview him myself. Hubbard is insouciant, almost bashful about it, but he lands those bags right where they need to be, much to the delight of the DJs and assorted media types milling about. 

He’s also, for one of the more successful artists in modern country music, extremely humble. He comes across as entirely unpretentious, more than happy to talk, grateful for the interest. As if he needs to be grateful – the interest is genuine, and well-placed; as one half of Florida Georgia Line, along with Brian Kelley, the pair over their career together amassed 19 #1 singles, more than 17 billion streams globally, and have sold close to five million albums. These are immense numbers by anyone’s standards, made all the more stark by the fact the duo decided to put their hit-making antics on hiatus, back in 2021.

And so, Tyler Hubbard, over the past three years, has added another quiver to his bow – one half of an incredibly successful country music / hybrid duo; ace cornholer; and now, country solo artist. He hit the ground running, last year releasing his eponymous solo debut, a record which did extremely well (over one billion streams), and it was an exercise he enjoyed so much, next month will see him already releasing a follow-up, the second full-length album under his own name, Strong

“I love to write songs and I write a lot every year, so it was nice to be able to pull from the pile and say, yeah, let’s go ahead and put out another album and continue to kinda feed the fans,” he smiles, adding, “it seemed like they were wantin’ more, so we were able to do that. I like the pace of an album a year – I don’t know if I’ll do it every year, but it feels nice right now, and you know, it’s a pace I think I could sustain, at least for a little while. Keep the fans [happy]… give ‘em what they want,” he laughs again.

Of the transition from duo to solo (albeit with a band behind him), Hubbard says the transition has been fairly seamless and that he’s, “really enjoying this new season, a new challenge, and kinda getting to rebuild, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve settled in nicely, kinda found my rhythm, having a lot of fun with it… getting to connect with the fans on a more personal level now, and just having some individuality, it’s been nice.”

One thing that rings true for both his musical endeavours thus far, is the songwriting itself. At the core of what he’s always done, is the writing, the songs forming the foundation from which he’s been able to build, whether with a partner or not. “[Yeah], I think fundamentally, it’s all about the songs, I’ve always put a lot of value in the songs, and I’d say that’s the foundation of anything,” he acknowledges. “So I’d say, just continue that motto over to my solo career, trying to write the best songs I can and put out the best quality music that I can put out, and see where it takes me.”

Of course, Hubbard has, coming into the solo realm, the benefit of his past upon which to build – he already had a dedicated fanbase, to say the least, a fanbase who would have been only too glad to turn their attentions to his solo endeavours once Florida Georgia Line decided to call a halt to proceedings. Having said that however, Hubbard is genuinely passionate about his current fanbase, and knows that despite his past, they won’t just take anything he dishes out. As such, it’s this fanbase, which made themselves known after the release of Tyler Hubbard last year, that have inspired Strong.

“[In terms of what’s inspired the songwriting on this album], I’d say a little bit of everything, life experience in general, but I’d say the majority of this album was inspired by the live show and just getting to know my fans last year for the first time, being out on tour and… starting to get to know my fanbase,” he smiles. “So I’d say the majority of the inspiration was pulled from them, really. Just the energy they gave me on tour last year, and like I say, most of these songs were written on the road, so literally just taking that energy the fans gave me and taking it back to the bus and writing this album.”

So how is this album different? How is Strong an evolution from Tyler Hubbard, despite the fact the two records appear barely a year apart from one another? “This album is different from the debut in a sense that the debut album was a kinda introduction to who I am I guess, an introduction to the world,” Hubbard explains.

“Whereas this [new] one is a little bit more settled in, a bit less about the fans getting to know me, just putting out good music that’s good to play. And of course, I do think the fans will get to know me probably even a little bit deeper… the first album laid the foundation for that, but this second one goes a little bit deeper and also it’s just a fun album that’s kinda made to play live.”

I venture then, that there’d have been quite a bit less pressure, from himself if nowhere else, when it came to making the record. “Yeah, maybe a bit less pressure,” he says thoughtfully. “I was confident in the songs I had written last year, and confident that the fans were there and were lovin’ what I was doing, and just felt all the support, and that helped relieve a lot of the pressure of making the album.”

And so this is Tyler Hubbard as he is today. He’s got his past, and it is indeed well documented. But he’s got his now, a time with which he’s most concerned, and with good reason – Strong is a hotly anticipated release, it sees Hubbard at the peak of his powers, riding the wave, the momentum, he’s created thus far. “You never know what life’s going to throw at you, as we’ve all learned over the last few years,” he smiles, “but yeah, I love writing songs… in a perfect world, I get to keep writing songs and making albums and playing shows and connecting with the fans, that’s my goal.”

That’s Tyler Hubbard’s future. And as for his past? “I don’t know man, it’s hard to say at this point,” he demurs when I ask if FGL are a chance of reuniting. “I’m havin’ a lot of fun doing the solo thing, I know [Brian’s] having a lot of fun doing the solo thing, so it’s hard to say, to be honest, but probably not anytime soon.”

Whatever happens, happens? “Exactly. Whatever happens, happens.”

Strong is available April 12 via EMI Nashville. 


Passion, love and a lack of fear defines The Black Crowes’ first album of original material in fifteen years – Rich Robinson details how it all came together, to Samuel J. Fell

[COVER STORY – Originally published in The Music (online), March 2024]

The record begins in what is now, after four decades, signature style – a searing, electric slide riff, equal parts rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll, the rumbling vocal over the top instantly recognisable to those in the know. The song is ‘Bedside Manners’, and it kicks off Happiness Bastards, the first album of new material from The Black Crowes in fifteen years. 

A decade and a half is one hell of a long time between drinks, particularly when placed within the context of a forty year career (the band’s eight other studio records were released over a nineteen year period), but then, The Black Crowes have never followed any one prescribed path, the well-documented waxing and waning tensions between founding brothers Rich and Chris Robinson seeing the band wax and wane itself.

When the band split for the third time in 2015 then, many would have anticipated an eventual reunion given it’s what the band had done twice previously, but there were never any guarantees. It took, as Rich Robinson says, a coincidence and that crafty old devil, fate, to bring the pair back together in order to release an album they never knew would exist.

“The way we got back together was very synchronistic,” Robinson muses. “One of the songs on the record, ‘Wanting & Waiting’ was the first song I had for the record, and it was from before I even knew we were going to get back together, I just had this song. 

“I mentioned it to a mutual friend that Chris and I know, and I said that I’d love to hear Chris sing on this song, because it’s really suited to him. And [this guy] said, Chris said [a similar] thing to me, like, two days ago – I was like, that’s cool, but you move on… then I was in New York, and he was in New York, and so we talked and… it flowed, there was nothing forced, there was no agenda, and I know it may sound sappy or weird, but the universe kinda brought us back together in a very gentle way.”

This was in 2019, and the band essentially picked up where it left off: they toured extensively for the 30th anniversary of debut Shake Your Money Maker (1990), ground to a halt with the rest of the world through the pandemic, went back out on tour releasing a live record and an EP of covers, writing all the while, and it was from this ‘gentle’ way of being, that the band built itself back up. “[It was] really cool, really positive, really mellow,” Robinson says of the time. And it was from this time then, that Happiness Bastards grew.

And it grew slowly, organically, without agenda or stipulation, helped in large part by the time the pair had to themselves while the pandemic raged, unchecked, about us all. “[When the pandemic happened], it was like someone just plopped down a year and a half on your lap, and you’re like, ‘Oh shit! The world just shut down, that’s weird’, so the writing wasn’t for any purpose, which is what I like about it,” Robinson says. 

“It was like, fuck, OK, we have a year and a half, I’m just gonna start writing and sending stuff, Chris was like, yeah, just do it.

“So there was no stress, there was no deadline, I had a studio in my house with all the instruments so I just built all these demos and I’d send them to Chris to sing on, and it was just a really cool thing. And everything was done with that same sense – nothing was off the table… I was just doing what I do, I’m not trying to write this kind of song or that kind of song, they just kinda come and they dictate where the record is gonna go. So the core of the record came from that spirit, you know?”

The resulting Happiness Bastards is a quintessential Black Crowes record – a multi-limbed rock ‘n’ roll beast quite obviously informed by the blues and the grooves that permeated through that ancient genre, equally at home chugging along or reigning things back in, introspective and pithy. It is, as Robinson is quick to point out, a very cohesive unit, despite the peaks and troughs that define the album’s ten tracks. “Chris and I have always had ideas and concepts as to what kind of record we make,” he explains.

Southern Harmony (1992) was a live record, we went in and made it in eight days, done, a lot of those songs were one take. Amorica (1994) was different; we wanted to make a studio album, a studio sounding record. But the interesting thing is, there’s always been… a journey on all of these records, but they always did maintain, whether they were commercial or not, there always was a cohesion, because all these things filtered through Chris and I. 

“So by the time we got to this record, there are elements of Shake Your Money Maker and Southern Harmony on this record, there is a cohesion to it. There’s still a journey, there’s still a trip you take, like from ‘Bedside Manners’, you go to a song like ‘Bleed It Dry’, or ‘Follow The Moon’, and then there’s a punk rock kinda song in ‘Flesh Wound’, and then you have this, [and that] and all these things, but it is a Black Crowes record – ultimately, that’s what it is, man, there’s a thread that runs through the whole thing and that’s what makes it that.”

In the accompanying press material for the album, Chris Robinson opines that Happiness Bastards is the band’s love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, something brother Rich agrees with emphatically, adding that for him, the record is one that exudes passion, like after fifteen years, he’s fallen in love with making Black Crowes music once more. “[Oh yeah], one of the feelings I get from this record is that there’s a passion behind it, there’s rock ‘n’ roll behind it,” he smiles.

“I loved Chris’s explanation that it’s a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll music, and it really kind of is,” he goes on. “Rock ‘n’ roll to me is and has always been the broadest of genres, you know – in the day, you had the Stones and Zeppelin, but Joni Mitchell was rock ‘n’ roll, so was Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Sly Stone and Joe Cocker, Bob Marley was rock ‘n’ roll and everyone kinda fit under this massive umbrella and there was a uniqueness to everyone, and the uniqueness was celebrated, instead of stamped out.”

Robinson goes on to bemoan the state of rock ‘n’ roll today as he sees it – “Man, I can’t even tell who the fuck is singing, there’s no uniqueness anymore” – which he cuts short with a self-conscious laugh before returning to the business at hand: rock ‘n’ roll as the Crowes are creating today.

In the creation of this particular piece of rock ‘n’ roll, there were more hands involved than just the brothers Robinson. The pair reunited with long-time bassist Sven Pipien, who features prominently on the album, as well as joining forces with renowned producer Jay Joyce, whose resume reads like the proverbial ‘Artists Anyone Would Like To Be Stranded On A Desert Island With’ – Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, The Wallflowers, Amos Lee, Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, you name it (he’s also played guitar for Iggy Pop, Crowded House, John Hiatt and Macy Gray, among others).

Both brothers are more than adept at working on the other side of the desk, having produced numerous other bands over the years along with their own side-projects, as well as having a hand in the production of many of The Black Crowes’ previous albums, but as Robinson explains, in this instance they were keen on having someone a bit further removed from the project than they were.

“Yeah, we knew enough to be like, we thought we should have someone come in and have, not a dispassionate view, but a 10,000 foot view without any baggage,” he reasons. “Someone who can come in and look at what we’re doing and be like, OK. So we made a decision, we need someone to come in and do this, so we were cool with it. And the minute we talked to Jay, I was like, I like this guy. And Chris and I agreed instantly on his energy, on his vibe, what he was talking about, just a really cool dude, and that was it.”

Where Joyce was invaluable to the band then, was in that 10,000 foot view – it’s worth mentioning again how long Rich and Chris Robinson had been working on these songs, and it’s a fair assumption to make that, when it came time to head into the studio, they’d have been having trouble seeing the wood from the trees, a common affliction affecting anyone involved in a creative endeavour.

A prime example was the song ‘Cross Your Fingers’, which begins with a slow and melodic acoustic guitar with Chris Robinson’s vocal riding rough over the top, before breaking down into a heavy, slow-nodding stoner rock-esque electric riff. “Yeah, when I wrote that, [it was all fine] and the chorus was the same but it wasn’t lifting,” Robinson says. 

“And so a producer like Jay can come in and say, well how about instead of trying to push it forward, we pull it back, and it lifted. And he did it in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of because that chorus kinda mellows and does this other thing, and I was like, wow, that’s fucking cool… so just those little things. And he knew when to push us, and when to not. And that is the hallmark of a great producer.”

Another who was involved in Happiness Bastards was multi-CMA and Grammy winning country artist Lainey Wilson, contributing vocals to the track ‘Wilted Rose’, one of the slower songs on the record and one which almost defies sonic description, crossing as it does seemingly multiple genres lines, all while retaining exactly the vibe required for its particular place within the track listing.

Wilson, who since recording her vocals for ‘Wilted Rose’ won Best Country Album at the 2024 Grammy Awards for her fourth record, Bell Bottom Country, came to be involved through the band’s connection with Darius Rucker, whose old band Hootie & The Blowfish they’d toured with before, prior to Rucker striking out solo and “going country”, as Robinson says with a laugh. “Darius would sing ‘She Talks To Angels’ (from Shake You Money Maker) every night during his set,” Robinson says, “he loved the song, he grew up loving the song. And he was like, [come and sing it with me] at the CMT Awards or something, and so we went and did it.”

“We’d never been to a country music awards, we never really crossed with the country world, we just did our own thing – but the outpouring of love for the song and for the band, it was a really amazing thing. And Lainey was there, and we met her and she was a sweetheart and her voice is so authentic and amazing, and we were like, this would be really cool for this song; it seems like her voice would really fit, the vibe of the whole thing.

“So we knew Jay had worked with her, he spoke really highly of her, and so we made it happen.”

The result sits like an oasis in the midst of Happiness Bastards’ otherwise ripping vibe, a well-placed piece of introspection on an album that fair throbs with energy, with passion, with rock ‘n’ roll and the love for same. It is, as Robinson sums up, a record which shows no fear, which given it’s been a decade and a half coming, is no mean feat. “We have had a tumultuous relationship throughout the years, but for whatever reason, when Chris and I would get into a room to write, we left all that bullshit behind,” he muses.

“And that’s why there was no fear involved; the one thing we both understood or knew or had so much respect for that we never fucked with it is, when we get into a room to write, we both have enough respect for each other and each other’s abilities, not to fuck around. “

“And so there were way more other things we would fight about and be stupid about,” he finishes with a laugh, “but writing songs we took very seriously. So there’s never been any fear in that sense. There’s something very free about it all. So I do think that added to the overall vibe of the record, you know what I mean?”

Happiness Bastards is available March 15 through Silver Arrow Records.


Laugh, cry, drink a beer – it doesn’t matter what the song makes you feel like doing, Lainey Wilson just wants it to make you feel, as she tells Samuel J. Fell

[First published on CountryTown (online), March 2024]

The past few months have been, for Louisiana-born Lainey Wilson, somewhat of a whirlwind. And not some run-of-the-mill whirlwind, but one of which country music dreams are made, reaping the type of recognition that, growing up in the tiny town of Baskin (population some 200 people) Wilson could only fantasise of. And, truth be told, she probably did.

Five CMA Awards (including Entertainer of the Year; Album of the Year; and Female Vocalist of the Year) last November, and just last month, a Grammy for Best Country Album for Bell Bottom Country, her fourth studio release and the one which has made such waves since it dropped in October 2022. “I feel like the last few years have just been a whirlwind,” she says with a smile, sitting backstage at last weekend’s CMC Rocks festival outside of Ipswich in south-east Queensland.

“[But] I’m trying to make sure I take a step back, try and zoom out and really pay attention to what’s happening and what’s going on, because you can get caught up and just go on from one thing to the next, from one win to the next, and before you know, that time has kinda passed you by. So I’m makin’ sure I’m present, as much as I possibly can.”

This is an attitude that has come to define Wilson, that of an artist who is intent upon remaining as grounded as possible, no matter the depths of success she and her music are able to plumb. Leaving home at a young age and relocating to Nashville, as so many young country singer-songwriting aspirants are want to do, Wilson came at it armed with little more than a guitar, a clutch of songs and a burning desire to succeed, building on the foundation she garnered growing up in Baskin as part of a tightknit family unit, which is something to this day she leans on, replies upon.

“Yeah, I am who I am because of the people and place that raised me,” he acknowledges. “Like, if I’m not Lainey the sister, Lainey the friend, Lainey the daughter, Lainey the dog momma, then I’m not Lainey the artist. 

“And thankfully, you know, even though I moved off and went to Nashville to go chase a dream, I did still stay close to my family because I take pride in where I come from and I’m proud of it and the work ethic they taught me – my daddy’s a farmer and my momma’s a teacher, they’ve busted their asses their entire life to have what they have, and they’re not just working for themselves, they’re working for me and my future family and they taught me that from the beginning.”

“And the truth is,” she says, leaning forward as if to truly drive home what she’s thinking, “these [awards] are all blessings and all gifts, and I accept them you know, because it’s nice to be recognised for your work, and also to be, like, voted on by your peers that you look up to. But at the end of the day, I’ve gotta make sure that I don’t let it define me as a person and as an artist. Because I think once you start doing it to win awards, you start doing it for the wrong reasons.”

The right reasons, for Wilson, are in the art of storytelling, of being able to “make people feel something, make ‘em wanna laugh, cry, drink a beer, you know?” she muses. “That’s the goal, just to make people feel something, and make them feel at home. The truth is, everybody wants to feel at home.”

“[So] I’m from a town of 200 people and we sit around and tell stories, the kind of stories that get better every time you hear ‘em,” she adds. “And that’s why I wanted to tell a story. So I’ve just gotta keep doing that, because it’s nice to have those awards on your shelf, but at the end of the day… I need to be proud of other things too.”

One reason for Wilson’s success of the past few years has been her ability to tell these stories through song, to tell stories that are, inherently, relatable. And this, in theory, is what is at the very heart of country music – a story through song that people, no matter their station in life, can feel and feel they themselves have lived, which is certainly no mean feat. “What I love about songwriting is just kinda puttin’ yourself in the shoes of whatever it is you’re writing about; it’s really therapeutic for me,” Wilson says on this, thinking carefully before answering.

“And I mean, it could be something I’m actually goin’ through, something my co-writer is experiencin’, or something I heard from a stranger, something at a meet and greet, or I was sittin’ at a bar and I heard somebody’s conversation, or it could fall out of the sky in the middle of the night. But yeah, when you can kinda put yourself into whatever it is, it takes you somewhere else.”

Bell Bottom Country is now almost a year and a half old (older for Wilson), and so I venture that she’d surely be working towards her next album, her next project, at the very least the next ‘batch of songs’ that could go anywhere, do anything, hopefully make people want to laugh, cry, drink a beer. “Always. Like, I feel like before Bell Bottom Country was even done, I was working on something else,” she laughs.

“But yes, I’m always working on stuff. I’m partial, because they’re my stories, they’re my babies, but I do feel like in the last few years, and even since Bell Bottom Country, I feel like I’m figuring out a little more about who I am, what I want to say, how I want to say it, and I feel more sure of myself, I feel like I’ve grown as a person, singer, songwriter, all of it, and I think you’ll be able to tell in this next batch of stuff.”

“And at the end of the day,” she says, smiling like she probably would have, years ago perhaps, while recording her first ‘batch of songs’ while the dream was still a dream, “I feel so strongly about the stuff that I’m currently working on… I told someone the other day, I said, if this never wins an award, I still feel like in my heart and soul that this is the best thing I’ve done. And that’s a good feelin’.”

LIVE: Knotfest Australia (Brisbane), 2024


RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane, May 24

by Samuel J. Fell 

[First published in Rolling Stone (online), March 2024]

I was somewhere out the back of Machinery Hill when the Jack Daniels began to take hold.

You know, to paraphrase.

But there were bats. 

Lots of bats. 

Swooping low, big wing-span bats; fruit bats, lodging in the Morton Bay Figs that shroud the edges of Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds, an oval of Queensland-green grass surrounded by grandstands serving a time gone by, surviving (now, just) in the middle of that small wedge of prime real estate along Gregory Terrace and the start of the bare, concrete reach that becomes Lutwyche Road, booming low and slow out past the hospitals and the freeway on-ramps toward the outers; the hot and dreary suburbs, the fibro shacks on overgrown plots and brick veneer two-bedders fronting onto rumbling through-roads; Brisbane…

But the believers are under the bats. Out the back of Machinery Hill. Out the back off the green grass, on the concrete, pissing in the plastic piss-palaces and perusing the places – the food places, the merch places, looking for a place to sit amidst the constant-ness of it all. 

Early, it’s Speed; that’s a place. Constant. Hardcore. Angry but joyous, which defines most of the day, the third and final day of Knotfest, rumbling dirty up the east coast, not stopping hardly at all; no quarter asked, none given. Heavy metal; make your excuses at your own cost.

They thrash about in their own way and I, having traversed the covered carpark and the striped black and yellow tape and the chat and the ‘lemme check yr bag, bro’, ‘yeah, man’ dance, come out onto the terrace and immediately follow the music, and so I find Speed thrashing about in their own way, and it’s not my way, but man… it’s infectious as shit, and – for the first time all fucking day, and make no mistake it’s a long fucking day – I get someone else’s groove.

And so I hit my booted heel into the ground in time with the beat. 

And I start moving my head in time with someone’s beat

And this defines the day. The beat.

And the riff. The Beat and the Riff… this is heavy metal, no? Agree or not.

And, indeed, agree or not. This is also heavy metal, for, like politics or religion or any other shit on this goddamn glorious sphere upon which we all stomp, it’s all subjective; you dig it, or you don’t. But, in the instance of Knotfest 2024, we dig it or we don’t in the same space, about the same thing. ‘Metal’ is an umbrella term – you don’t have to dig it all, but at its core, we’re all here together.

And so we are in Brisbane on this sultry late-summer’s day. The sky hangs low like an elephant’s undercarriage, more often than not loosing a fine drizzle upon all us metal faithful, spending our Sunday in the sanctity of the beat and the riff and the Cathedral of Fuck You (“This is our church,” sings Elizabeth Hale of Halestorm later on, as they finish their set) where no one is left behind and we’re all one and together.

Metal crowds – the nicest and best of all musical crowds.

After Speed, on the right-hand-side stage, is Skindred from Newport in south Wales who delight in the drop… the long groove that then drops into the ‘headbanger’s delight’ – man, I did not (having not heard their music prior to this very weekend) expect this from this crew, but (again), I find someone else’s beat and I also find (quickly and effortlessly) how easily I can adapt to how they’re shaping metal and so I listen to vocalist Benji Webbe

(Cheeky motherfucker that he is – “Who needs a t-shirt?”, holding up a band t-shirt [crowd yells that they do], “Fuck you, sixty dollars once you’ve left.” Throws it back over his shoulder)

and, yes, this is (to some extent, at least) ‘My Jam’. Or his, or hers next to me, or anyone’s roaming about the grounds. I came into this day with a list of who I wanted to be in front of and Skindred weren’t on that list but they are now.

And I’m more than happy with that, and this, as was inevitable, is where the Jack Daniels comes into play. But, as we’re all in Sunday Sanctuary together, who gives a goddamn?

Escape The Fate step to the pulpit next up and begin with ‘Forgive Me’, a song which any self-respecting clergyman would denounce (as it contains the line, ‘I killed myself today’), but let’s be honest – how many men of the cloth are here today? Unless, by cloth, you mean some sort of black t-shirt with any number of slogans printed upon same…

[Examples of t-shirts spotted at Knotfest, 2024…

  • Kanye? Never Heard Of Her (with a picture of Lemmy) – Classic
  • I Like His Beard (he, next to her, wears a matching shirt saying, ‘I Like Her Butt’) – Fair play
  • My Beard, Your Boobs – Classy…
  • It’s A Slut Party Right Here – FFS, I almost wish I was in actual church…]

ETF, again, aren’t my tin of overly-priced booze, but you’ve gotta tip the hat where it’s due; new(ish) guitarist, Matti Hoffman is a monster across those six strings and when the band see fit to drop it all down to the tacks, the tacks, then it’s as good as most else I hear all day long.

Knotfest is set up in the same vein as CMC Rocks, or as Big Day Out used to run – two huge stages, side by side, one being used while the other is hurriedly prepped – crew scuttling about gantries and hauling cable like ants before a rain storm – the change between sets, then, effortless, hardly more than a handful of seconds all day long (and, on the odd occasion where there is a short delay, some wag in the booth presses play on the likes of Vengaboys’ ‘We Like To Party’, or Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody’) and so the morning lethargy burns off and we begin the run into the long, hard, flat afternoon moving from stage to stage, a whirlwind of guitars, thumping and churning and rolling about on the flat-trodden grass, slick underfoot as the drizzle carries on.

Thy Art Is Murder do exactly as you’d expect them to, razor-sharp, tight as a drum; Wage War simplify things somewhat, more four-to-the-floor thrash, punctuated, as they’ve been want to do in the past, by a solo acoustic number that fits well within the confines of the middle afternoon, Briton Bond’s voice careening back off the stands, filled with people sitting, watching, waiting.

Everyone is waiting.

Waiting for what? I don’t know and so lope off to find food, somewhere to sit myself, watch the bats, the people. I watch Asking Alexandria too, at least for a bit as their brand of metal – metalcore? Touches of industrial? Too much singing, not enough growling? – isn’t for me and so I wander through the market past the lockers, smoke a cigarette in the corner, flick it in the bin and head back onto the worn grass in the late afternoon as The HU come on stage, and this is wild shit.

Mongolian folk metal, if you can dig it, which most seem to be doing – their set is underpinned by an almost constant low and heavy drone, it (the music as a whole) seems to slowly emanate from the stage, slowly seeping out and out and through you until it hits brick up the back of the old stands and then rolls right back – the traditional throat singing enhances the drone and so it all seems to follow you, no matter where you’re lurking onsite…

Filling cracks and crevices.

They are fucking happy to be here, man, they raise their arms to the sky and growl their appreciation, which is hurled back ten-fold, indeed, and the use of the traditional morin khuur (a bass guitar / violin kind of combo, two strings, played with a bow) is of a level above even the next, and the next… sounds you’d reckon Dimebag Darrell would get excited about.

It’s getting dark around now. The bats, they’re out and they swoop low and look to settle but lift at the last second and then they’re gone, lost in the evening mist.

Halestorm bring an immense energy to proceedings, Hale vivacious and vicious all at once; strobing stage lights cut patterned lines through the falling rain, for quick nips of time brightening the dark corners, high in the stands down the back, booming up iridescent as the Riff comes in, all of it breaking down into a sludgy puddle that seems done and dried all too soon, but then one switches their attention to the left side stage and Lamb of God begin, and this is metal, the heaviest of metals, the most precise and yet rangy and fucked up metal of the day, frontman Randy Blythe a goddamn pinball of pent up aggressive energy…

He bounces and never stops, jumping off drum risers and fold-back speaker alike; he holds court, talks to the crowd, riles them up and pushes them back, pushes them around and the circle pit down the front churns and churns and those of us back a ways, about the base of the sound tower, nod our heads heavy in time with it all, and truth be told, this set is the first of the day that finishes far too soon, way too soon, they do finish though and the lights flash a dirty yellow and then it’s done.

Out the back, on the front terrace or in the alleys between stands or on the slick and hard concrete behind Machinery Hill, people are milling about and it’s blurry; time and space constantly warping… is it the drink? Maybe. The dull thud in heads that mutes the sound? Perhaps… people are still waiting.

I stop and lean against the wood outside the Cattleman’s Bar, take stock for a moment but fall into impromptu conversation with Dylan, who’s only got one shoe having lost the other in the LoG pit and so his sock is sodden but he couldn’t give less of a shit; he bums a few tally-hos and we talk about bands and the act of worshipping in the high church of heavy metal, which he seems fairly well attuned to, and then his phone rings and he hops off to find his mate. Hops off to continue waiting, like everyone else.

They’ve been waiting all day.

For Disturbed? Yes, for many. Disturbed have been doing what they’ve been doing for some thirty years – three decades of ‘The Sickness’, three decades of their nu-heavy hybrid that is, by now, tight as a new snare and so they Deliver. I observe from the side, from high up in one of the stands, from the back. I don’t like their music, I never have, but one cannot deny how fucking good they are at what they do – this is music done clinical; for many, when they’re done, it’s a devastation.

But, of course, it is now time. This is what people have been waiting for; people who’ve been wandering about all day taking in the Beat and the Riff but, really, waiting for the Beat and the Riff that they’ve known for decades, that they haven’t seen in the flesh since 2001…

And so it is then, that Pantera take the stage, and people push forward, eager faces lit large by the flashing strobes… and there they are, Rex on his goddamn bass and Zakk (you can never see his face, covered, head down, intense) and Charlie (metronomic, the Beat) and Phil, Phil, fuck I’ve missed you, brother…

And then the sound gives out.

They don’t know it through and so continue thrashing through ‘A New Level’ having a fucking ball, but us out in the dark are howling, screaming, trying to be heard (the drums and vocals are still alive) – ‘fix the fucking sound, man, the sound…’ Word gets to the band and so they stop and there’s a pause – the quietest period of the entire day – and then, a minute or so later, they’re back and so they begin again, ‘Mouth For War’, and they’re off.

To my mind, to my devastated mind, the sound never quite comes back to how it was though, Wylde’s guitar remains too low in the mix (you’ve gotta strain to hear it, strain…) but damn, man, Pantera after all this time – and they (Rex and Phil) have schooled Zakk and Charlie (pros, total pros, as you’d expect) and so the sound is Pantera – Vinnie and Dimebag loom large, each a face on Benante’s kick drums… For the fans, for the brotherhood, for the legacy, printed on t-shirts and posters and all over the fucking place, that’s what this tour is.

And they own it. They whip and howl through what is surely the shortest set of the day. It cannot be over… ‘Walk’, ‘Strength Beyond Strength’, ‘Fuckin’ Hostile’, vague memories of favourites swim through the murk later on… but it is over and we’re left standing on wet grass in the middle of an arena, Brisbane lit around us as the sound fades and finally, finally dies. The band hug on stage, they salute the faithful, and it’s done.

The bats have gone, and I imagine, as I trudge out with my brethren, that the flat-track concrete out the back of Machinery Hill is quiet now. Rain drips from the figs and the closer you get to the front gate, you can hear slow traffic out on the Terrace, the sound of real life.

My head thrums. With the Beat and the Riff. All together, some sort of sonic melange, a day’s worth of heavy shit, stuffed into my head. People sing as we walk through the carpark but the further away we get the more the crowd thins and the sound and the singing and the laughter die off and then I’m alone on a slick street somewhere in Brisbane, Knotfest behind me, but the Beat and the Riff living on.


One of the most influential metal bands in history, Pantera have risen from the ashes and are bringing their music back to life – as they play Australia for the first time in twenty-three years, bassist Rex Brown talks to Samuel J. Fell

[First published in Rolling Stone (online), March 2024]

It began in Arlington, Texas. Clad in spandex, teased hair, shrouded in the miasma that was the 1980s. It began as a channelling of youthful energy set to the music of the time, that over time, warped and buckled and was rebuilt into something so sonically brutal as to stand on its own as a bastion to heavy sound itself.

Pantera was its name, and as that decade wore on and morphed into the next, the four young men from the American south who comprised the band’s ranks, came to define a time and place and way of doing things that is still adhered to, and idolised, to this day. And this day is different, make no mistake. But it’s no less poignant, no less urgent, no less meaningful to the millions it’s bruised, the power of this music on display so vulgar.

But, of course, you know all this. You know of the band’s ingesting of more hard-biting musical influence, of the addition of a young vocalist from the steamy streets of New Orleans that began so gloriously to pervert their sound. You know of the warning shot, 1988’s Power Metal, and the ensuing full-on assault that began two years later via the now-seminal Cowboys From Hell. You know the band ran hard and fast through the ‘90s before imploding in the early 2000s, seemingly ending what was, for so many, the greatest period in heavy music since it began, likely never to be repeated.

You know that the heavy metal world was changed as a result.

Plenty has happened since the release of Pantera’s final record, 2001’s Reinventing The Steel, and not a lot of it good, but you know this too. Addiction and estrangement and death has permeated the ranks of one of the most influential heavy metal bands of our time, of all time, and yet, like the proverbial phoenix, the band has, almost inexplicably, risen once more. And it’s different, in human terms, but it’s the same, from a musical point of view, their signature groove-addled power thrash still very much alive. 

It’s been reported that, in the middle of 2022, long-time bassist Rex Brown and vocalist Philip Anselmo began talking about resurrecting the band in some form or another, but this isn’t true. According to Brown, the conversations began “way before that”, and when pressed on how they began, how they progressed, says, “I’m not gonna go there,” suggesting it wasn’t as easy as it perhaps sounds. “We’ll let you know in the book,” he adds, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.

Brown and Anselmo, in Australia for the first time since 2001, are the only remaining ‘original’ members of the band, touring today (and for the past year and a bit) with Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante filling the immense shoes of founding brothers Vinnie and Darrell Abbott, both of whom have died since the band went on hiatus, in 2001, and then was scrapped two years later. It’s on the memory of the Abbott brothers that this reincarnation is founded, the band’s current tour leaning heavily on the ideas of legacy and brotherhood.

And so it is then that, finally, after twenty-three years, we see the band back on Australian shores – older? Yes. Wiser? Perhaps. But very much aware of the time that’s elapsed, the time spent away from their fans, and now, the opportunity to reconnect, to reintroduce themselves once more. “We were just young, spry bucks, you know, very thirsty, fuckin’ angry young men,” Brown smiles, thinking back. “And here we are, grateful and it’s just a privilege to be here. We’re different fellas to how we were back then.”

“I mean, it’s a dream,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “I told Philip yesterday, man, pinch me when this shit’s over.”

For Brown, being on stage under the Pantera banner once again isn’t anything to be taken lightly. It’s not a gimmick, a money-making exercise, something he’s involved with just for the hell of it. This is, for Brown, for Anselmo, no doubt for Wylde and Benante, and sure as hell for the band’s millions of fans, a very real thing – “Two of our beloved brothers that just aren’t here anymore man, that’s life, you know?” Browns says on the deaths of the Abbott brothers. “They’re just not with us man, that’s just fate, it’s the way the ball rolls, dude.”

“It’s just one of those things that is sacred to us, you know?” he goes on, insinuating that just because the original lineup isn’t present, it doesn’t mean the music stops; indeed, its somewhat of a homage. “This is not… this is no tribute band, you know, Philip and I get to play these songs of ours that we haven’t played in 23 years. And to be able to do that and connect with the enormity of what’s happened, is just extraordinarily fucking insane, you know?”

The pair who have been recruited to fill these hallowed spots long left vacant are, of course, not just anyone, session musicians plucked from obscurity; Wylde, as well as fronting the well-known Black Label Society, has played guitar with Ozzy Osbourne for decades, while Benante is the long-time drummer for thrash pioneers Anthrax – no one but the best to fuel the current incarnation of one of the more powerful bands in modern music. “These guys are kickin’ fuckin’ ass,” Brown asserts. “Hard shoes to fuckin’ fill, I’ll put it that way.”

“We knew, we knew who would fit and who wouldn’t,” he drawls. “We knew what the obstacles were in front of us, and we knew after… I’ll put it this way – Charlie and I came down in September before we played that [first] show in December (2022), and we have probably one hundred hours of tape of us playing every fucking Pantera song that I could remember.

“And so, you know, me and Charlie lockin’ in like that… the drummer and the bass player, that’s your foundation. So when Zakk came in, there were certain things we had to go over and over and over, to get tight. And today, this band is about as tight and about as badass as I fucking want. You know what I mean, and that’s all I’m gonna say on that.”

“Look, I’ll put it this way,” he adds a little later. “If it wasn’t tight, if it didn’t sound as close to, you know, I wouldn’t do it. That’s it. But man, this band is on fuckin’ fire, and I couldn’t be happier man, I just can’t explain that as much as I need to, I could not be happier.”

Another thing you know: unless you’re at a Pantera show, you’re not going to get that ‘feeling’. As Brown concurs, “You’re not gonna get that feeling off YouTube, you know, you have to experience it live.” And this is how it is now. The Abbott brothers are no longer here, this is a fact of life. But the music is. It’s still, in the hands of Pantera as it is today, as pure and jagged and real and raw as it ever was. “That’s the whole thing… there’ll be the chants before we go on for a big show and I’ll just go, ‘Hey boys, let’s just fuckin’ look at each other and fuckin’ jam’, that’s it. We all know these songs in and out, man. But you’ve gotta bring a rock ‘n’ roll element to it, you know what I’m saying? You can get it as tight as you want, but the thing that we were really good at back in the day, was impromptu kinda territory, and that’s where we’re kinda headed, you know?”

So it began in Arlington, Texas. It’s grown and prospered and withered but it’s never died. On the contrary. So where will it end? Will it end? Will the joy in playing this music that Brown and his brothers in sound are so easily finding, ever fade? Time, which has had its wicked way with us for so long, won’t stop, but then nothing is concrete, nothing is written in stone; indeed, this is something you don’t know. 

“You’ll see this band go and go and go and go,” Brown says. “There’ll be a bunch of new songs in the set in 2025, maybe even this year… I ain’t givin’ it away.” He won’t be drawn on specifics, and in truth, it doesn’t matter. Not right now.

“The set list we’re doing now, goddamn, it’s powerful, man,” he smiles. “And I hate tootin’ my own horn, dude, you know… we’re just happy to be here, man, it’s a privilege to be here, I’m honoured and I am grateful to be here, and that’s all I gotta say, man.”

(Feature image by Ashley Mar)

Well Vaughan

[Published in Rhythms Magazine, Mar/Apr 2020)

After more than half a century playing the blues, Jimmie Vaughan is an icon – and he doesn’t just play the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

Jimmie Vaughan’s dogs are barking. You can hear them, faint, in the background, running riot on his ranch, a little ways outside of Austin, Texas, where he’s lived for years.

It’s the ranch that blues built. Somewhere to come and recuperate while not on the road, rest the metaphorical barking dogs. Somewhere to perhaps contemplate over half a century spent grinding out the gritty and muscular version of this music particular to Texas. It’s a brand of the blues made famous by the House of Vaughan, Jimmie and little brother Stevie Ray indeed synonymous with Stratocasters wielded in just such a way as to make one think of nothing other than the Lone Star State, and that’s just how it’s been ever since way back when.

Vaughan is a lot older now, but he’s not pulled back. Age hasn’t slowed his flying fingers, it hasn’t dulled his rockslide voice. Age has, in no way at all, blunted his love of this music, of this feeling.

“What I love about it, is so many things,” he says after a pause, thinking on what at face value is a simple question, but that really has depths and depths – what is it about the blues that you love?

“I love the theme, about a man and a woman, about being in love, or not being in love, it’s about life. It’s the same as a Hank Williams record, you know?

“I mean, you have what we call the head, the head of the song which is the theme, but in the middle, the solos are wide open… [the possibilities] are endless, and it’s easy to change as you go along. Your guitar playing kinda moves a little this way, a little that way – you’re really playing what you feel, at that moment, that’s the plan.”

Vaughan talks of these song middles being played “in real time”, meaning, in the true spirit of electric blues in general and Texas blues specifically, that they’re never played the same way twice, as every time you’re playing a song and the opportunity comes up to really move, to ad-lib, as he says, you can go wherever you’re feeling you need to go.

Where Jimmie Vaughan has been, in a broader sense, is everywhere. It began for him in Dallas, Texas, where be began to tread the path he’s now worn for countless others, back in the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s – “If I didn’t do this, there wasn’t any other plan,” he’s been quoted as saying. “But even as a kid I knew I loved music, and particularly the blues.”

Other bands in Dallas weren’t really hitting it for the young guitarist though and so right at the tail-end of the ‘60s, just after the fabled summer of love (which wouldn’t have made too much of an impression in Texas, one would think), Vaughan relocated to Austin, the state’s thriving musical hub, and it was here that he began to find what it was he was looking for.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds, the group for which Vaughan is most well-known, debuted in 1974, a group made up of local blues aficionados all schooled at local venue Antone’s, a tough and ready blues group who released four albums between ’79 and ’82 before losing their recording contract, regaining it in ’86, and releasing three more albums before Vaughn left the group in 1990.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds travelled the globe, their music, sound and general sonic motif informed as much by Vaughan’s guitar as it was Kim Wilson’s voice and harmonica. This was, at the time, where Jimmie Vaughn belonged.

Things change though. Vaughan left the group; his younger brother died tragically in a helicopter crash, just after the pair had recorded their first album together; his priorities changed.

Jimmie Vaughan’s first solo album, 1994’s Strange Pleasure(which contained the Stevie Ray tribute, ‘Six Strings Down’) was the gateway to a new era of the guitarist’s life, an era which has extended and extended, an era still going. Indeed, this is his era, and things are different now.

“When I first started playing, I was in a band that was really working, we were making money,” he recalls. “We had to play some of the Top 40 stuff… we were playing at colleges and people like that, they wanted to hear certain things. But now, I get to make a record and just play whatever I want to hear. And usually, there’s fans there that like the same kind of thing. That’s the difference.”


Vaughan’s latest release is Baby, Please Come Home(May, 2019). It is, in a sense, a tribute album, continuing a trend he’s been toying with over recent releases, “a series of albums dedicated to the songs he’s always held in high esteem, recorded by artists that inspired him from his very earliest days of performing.”

(On how he managed to distil to a mere eleven tracks songs which have had such an influence on him, he says it’s relatively easy – first, does he like the song? Second, can he sing it? He and the band then “try a lot of stuff, and if it works we keep doing it, if it doesn’t work we don’t do it.”)

So Baby, Please Come Homeis a tribute, a paean to the players who’ve had a role, no matter how small, in shaping this iconic player. What’s interesting about the track choices then, and if you’re familiar with the music of Jimmie Vaughan it’s not that surprising, is the range of influence.

Yes, the blues is there. It’s there in Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s ‘Midnight Hour’ and Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, What’s Wrong’. It’s there in Chuck Willis’s ‘What’s Your Name’ and T-Bone Walker’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’. But there’s also R&B, jazz and soul (Lloyd Price, Etta James and Bill Doggett), doo-wop (Richard Berry) and country and folk (Lefty Frizell and Jimmy Donley). It’s a mixed bag of influence, all done over with Vaughn’s trademark brush.

“I do a lot of old, what they call hillbilly songs,” he explains, on something he’s always done, not just for this record. “But I do ‘em as if I didn’t know they were hillbilly.”

“I love all that stuff… my uncles, when I was a kid, my uncles on both sides of the family were in hillbilly bands, they played country and western and all those kinds of things,” he goes on. “When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the difference. I just think of it as American music, country music, blues, it’s all the same thing, really.”

Technically then, Jimmie Vaughan isn’t really a blues player – as was noted in a recent review of Baby, Please Come Home, “Vaughn completely ignores modern electric blues trends… the past is present and future.” So what does he call himself?

“People call me blues, and they understand what it is, so I say yes,” he shrugs. “But if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m just playing songs that I really like and that I remember from when I was a kid. And once in a while we write one, which sounds like the old ones.”

He breaks off his thought to laugh, like it’s funny this music has so seeped into his psyche that he can’t help but write like the music he knows and has known his entire life.

“You know, really I’m just doing what I love, that’s what I’m doing. And everybody should do that, right? Everybody should do that, everybody should do what they love.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he then says, steering himself back on topic, still playing this music after more than half a century. “It doesn’t get old.”

He’s right. While the man himself might be getting on in years, while his dogs may be barking louder and more often, the music itself, the playing of the music, the sharing of the music with as many people as Jimmie Vaughan has, does not get old. It’s the blues, and in Jimmie Vaughan’s hands, it just keeps on keeping on.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jimmie Vaughn is no longer touring Australia in April 2020. Baby, Please Come Home is available now via The Last Music Co.

Main image credit – Skip Bolan

Cedric Burnside – The Legacy

[Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Rhythms magazine]


Cedric Burnside comes from storied roots, and while he’s his own musician, he’s keeping true to the soul of the music that defines him, writes Samuel J. Fell

Cedric Burnside answers the phone, says he’s expecting my call. I tell him I’ve been looking forward to chatting and he smiles, “All right, all right,” he says. He’s at home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, enjoying some time off after a long year spent taking his brand of hill country blues far and wide. “I’ll get to rest up a bit,” he says. “Well needed.”

Burnside – son of drummer Calvin Jackson, grandson of the legendary RL Burnside, drummer and guitarist and songwriter, currently the man at the centre of Mississippi hill country blues – has been touring hard on the back of his first solo album, Benton County Relic, released in late 2018. It’s not his first release by any measure, but it’s the first it’s just him, it’s all on him.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” he says on making an album that was his – not The Cedric Burnside Project, not his partnership with Bernard Allison, not anything he ever did with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm. “I love collaborating with people and stuff like that, but I always knew I wanted to do a solo album. I always knew I wanted to play the guitar like I hear it in my head, and write the songs like I have them in my head.”

Benton Country Relic is Burnside and drummer Brian Jay. It was recorded in Jay’s Brooklyn studio. It’s pure hill country – a heavy percussive foundation, overlayed by driving guitar, repetitious and boogie-fuelled. It’s Burnside, make no mistake.

Burnside, ever since he began playing the blues, has been a drummer; indeed, he was drumming in RL’s band at age 13, and it’s been behind the kit where he’s contributed most – with the likes of RL, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Kenny Brown, T-Model Ford, Paul ‘Wine’ Jones, as well as more contemporary acts like Widespread Panic and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And so a key difference to making this solo record was stepping to the front, and swapping the skins for six strings.

“I always wanted to play the guitar more,” he muses. “Of course, I love the drums… but guitar is my newfound love, so I wanted to play it more, and I definitely wrote more songs playing the guitar.”

It may come as a surprise to learn that Burnside has been playing the guitar for almost fifteen years, seriously the past seven years. And he’s taken to it naturally, which should notcome as a surprise, given his pedigree. “Because I’ve played drums so much, I’ve always had to play music to the other guys, and let them do it their way,” he explains. “So it’s a good thing for me to hear the music like I hear it in my head, and play it like I want to play it.”

Benton County Relic(the ‘relic’ part of the title nothing to do with Burnside himself, but the music: “So many of my friends when they heard this music were like, man, it sounds like something old, back in the ‘60s.”), is the calling card of a man who knows where this music is coming from. There’s another record in the works, Burnside looking at heading back to the studio as early as this month, but it bears investigation as to how important it is for him – again, given his pedigree – to keep the torch burning.

“Oh man, it’s very important, I don’t even have the words to explain how important it is,” he enthuses, almost in awe of the position he’s in. “I’m not trying to fill shoes, of course, I wouldn’t dare try to do that.” He briefly name-checks his dad, his grandfather, Junior Kimbrough: “It’s kinda hard to fill their shoes.”

“But I can make my own mark and keep this music alive, because this is what I learnt from them,” he goes on. “It’s in my blood… I think they’d be very proud of me to keep it alive, and also not contaminate it with anything, trying to be what I’m not. I am hill country blues, I’m from the old school, and that’s how I wanna keep my music.”

Burnside tells of his big daddy (his name for RL) playing him Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell records when he was young. “I might have been only one of the grandkids, of fifteen or twenty, who sat there and listened to that music, saying ‘What is this?’” he laughs. “It captured my heart; it’s what I love the most.”

Benton County Relic is available now via Single Lock Records. Cedric Burnside tours Australia in March, see his website for details HERE

CW Stoneking – A Man In Shadow

[Published in the January / February issue of Rhythms magazine, 2020]


As CW Stoneking contemplates his next album, it’s in the solo guise – just him and his shadow – where you’ll see him next. By Samuel J. Fell

Christopher William Stoneking is reclining on the bed of a non-descript hotel room. The lights are off and, save for the flickering of the television set which washes his face bright one second and returns it to shadow the next, he’s hard to see; an eerie setting which seems, in equal measure, both odd and fitting for a man who’s never been one to do things by the book.

Stoneking is in Sweden, in the town of Lund to be precise. It’s late on a Friday evening for him, a travel day, no gigs, he’s just come in from Germany, having already played shows in Berlin and Hamburg, Switzerland before that, Belgium before that, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Greece.

He has a few shows in Sweden over the coming days, then a couple in Norway to round off a grinding European tour. Then he’s on a break for a while, before hitting the road in North America in late January, through most of February, before returning home to Australia for a run of shows in March.

CW Stoneking & His Own Shadowis how this tour is billed, and it’s in this guise – solo, just the man, a guitar and his clutch of songs – that he’s been seen over the past couple of years. These days based in Nashville (after a couple of years in the UK in the late 2000s, coinciding with Britain’s mini blues boom), Stoneking has been looking to crack the American market – notoriously fickle when it comes to outsiders playing ‘their’ music – and so has pared things back, taking to it mostly on his own.

“That’s pretty much all I’ve been doing the last couple of years,” he concurs, on playing solo. “It was my manager’s idea to do a couple of [solo] shows in Australia, and the first one I did I fucking hated it, I hadn’t played solo in, I don’t know, five or six years.

“And so I scared the shit out of myself so much on the first one, that I practised really full-on over the next couple of days, then the second show I liked, and just got into it.”

“I’m very confortable with it now,” he says, when I venture that, as a solo player, there’s nowhere to hide, but that perhaps that’s become part of the appeal; the stripped back necessity of it all. “Some of the things that were a challenge at the start, feel pretty natural now.

“At the start, I had to make a lot of new arrangements to the tunes… Yeah, but I guess [the old guys], they would do that – imitate pianos and things like that, that’s sort of how I learnt to played anyway.”

Back to his roots, in a way. “Yeah, sorta,” he muses.


Stoneking – known as CW, as much for brevity I suppose, as anything else – came to prominence in 2005 with the release of his first long-player, King Hokum. He’d been playing about for a number of years prior to this, his fascination with pre-war blues and jug band music, along with his knack for storytelling and a somewhat odd persona, endearing him to a growing audience around Melbourne for the most part, the occasional dalliance further afield.

King Hokum brought to life something old and dusty, brushed it off, spun it on its head and released it afresh to an audience who found something new within it all. Stoneking, with his mumbling way of singing, his slicked back hair and black preacher suit and hat, tattooed and wont to pepper his banter with casual expletives, seemed a little uncomfortable with the attention but carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Something extraordinary washappening though, albeit on a small scale, as far from the epicentre of this most American of musics as is almost possible. As has been noted in the American press, here was “a fine purveyor of American roots music who also happens to be a towering, youthful-faced white Australian man,”a man who, in reference to the way he talks and sings, carried an accent that “isn’t quite his own… but when he speaks, it is in that same soft, slow drawl that caresses his music. With another musician, it could all come across as tacky and distasteful, but not with Stoneking.

“He is so deeply immersed in the world that his music conjures that it’s hard to imagine him any other way.” Stoneking was doing something that was striking chords – not many players of the blues in this day and age are able to do this, and yet this most mysterious man from country Australia was doing just that.

Something I’ve always admired about the man’s music is the possibility that it presents – while I’m listening, I too am fully immersed in the blues, the country, the elements of jazz and hokum, of New Orleans and the Congo, but I’m also thinking ahead somewhat, wondering what else this fearless purveyor of all manner of rootsy sounds will come up with next.

His second record, 2008’s Jungle Blues presented straight up what the possibilities were (a steaming melange of blues-inflected, calypso-stained sounds), as did his eventual third long-player, Gon’ Boogaloo (2014), which threw a further curveball, an all-electric affair, Stoneking hunched over his Fender Jazzmaster, dressed from head to toe in white, old rock ‘n’ roll the album’s sonic motif.

Each album has offered something different, whilst building from the base which Stoneking has made his own; that of the blues. And so what of his next offering? The gap between albums has been widening, the sounds contained within widening too. The possibilities are almost endless, and so the question must be asked then, what will CW Stoneking come out with next?


“I’ve hardly been listening to any music for a while now,” he says languidly. We’re talking about what’s been inspiring him, sonically, and what he’s been toying with.

There’s no hurry to release anything, and as he says, “I’d be perfectly fine to put out a record every year if I had good shit,” he shrugs. “But if I put that many tunes together in a year, they’d be shit, to be honest.” He laughs at the perceived absurdity of it. “I just can’t do it,” he laughs, “I don’t feel like I’m much of an instrumentalist, you know?”

A return to playing with a band is perhaps the only thing Stoneking is sure of regarding his next album, an offering that is very much in the works, but again, there’s no rush – he’ll release when he’s ready, and indeed, it’s a slow process for him. “It takes me a long time to learn how to play what I wanna do,” he says. “I’m better at thinkin’ up shit, than actually knowing how to play it.”

His initial thought was to “get a horn band, maybe down in New Orleans or somethin’,” but he’s moved past this idea. His current home in Nashville has offered up more of an enticing possibility, that of a string band, a stripped back version of the country combos that have plied their musical trade in the south of the US for decades.

“I’m thinking maybe a string band, get ahold of some bluegrass players or somebody,” he says. “Not to do bluegrass, but good harmony singers and there’s all these different places to go with that.

“I like the idea of a small group, I might try and do as much as I can with a three-piece, like double bass, maybe mandolin or something… I hear some of these old Italian mandolin virtuosos, it sounds great. Cos they’re all playing amazing shit… sounds like an orchestra. So I’m kinda into stuff like that.

“I feel like this long period playing solo again, has got me a bit more fulsome in my playing, so I’ll find a couple of guys.”

Stoneking reclines further on the bed, thinks a little about what he’s just said, perhaps about how far off it is, perhaps an idea for a tune is forming. Either way, his mind is slowly churning, the bits and bobs that will eventually come together to form whatever it is he releases into the world next, slowly building. As far as he’s concerned, this is life, and this is how he lives it.

“I like it a lot, I really like touring. I like making tunes,” he says of it all. “I have a natural disposition to be a procrastinator, to be lazy, even with things I like. But I enjoy it, and once I’ve got ‘em done, I love playing them, I don’t get bored of my own songs.”

“[And so] I’ll just keep making batches of tunes,” he smiles. “I’m gonna be bald-headed soon, so, whaddaya gonna do about it? It just goes like that, I don’t care… I’ve got some real nice guitars, I’ll get some records out, I get to travel ‘round and eat some tasty food. If I can keep on doing that, and everything is cool with my kids, then what else are you gonna do?”

CW Stoneking plays the Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 6-9. For all other tour dates, see Stoneking’s website HERE





Joshua Hedley, Solitary Man

[Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, July 13]


For JOSHUA HEDLEY, country music is about honesty, sincerity, and dealing with emotion, no matter how hard that is, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

For Joshua Hedley, country music is like a second skin. The 33-year-old, these days based in Nashville, Tennessee, presents like he’s been immersed in this uniquely American art-form all his life, and this isn’t far wrong. Born in Florida, Hedley picked up a fiddle at age eight, and his destiny was pressed into the metaphorical red dirt, the classic form of the music – wrought with emotion, music that breathes and bleeds – becoming his very being.

“There’s this level of relatability in country music that speaks to me, that I can’t get from any other kind of music,” Hedley explains, adding with a laugh, “I love hip hop music too, but they’re singing about cars and lots of money and stuff like that, and I don’t live that life. But I have had my heart broken, and I have been drunk, and I do like to dance, you know, it speaks to me more than other musics because I relate to it.

”It’s this relatability to the music that has fuelled Mr. Jukebox, Hedley’s debut long-player, released early last month on Jack White’s Third Man Records. He talks about the honesty, sincerity and simplicity of country music as factors that draw him to it, but first and foremost, for this album, it’s about relating to the characters within the songs.

“When you can put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist in the song, it just makes it better, because it makes it more personal,” he offers.

Mr. Jukebox, a collection of ten songs that could have been recorded in the 1950s, such is the deep, dark country music lament that defines it, almost never was. As a fiddle player, Hedley was more than content in the sideman role (he first toured Australia in 2011 as Justin Townes Earle’s fiddle player), but around five years ago, at the urging of fellow modern purveyors of classic country Johnny Fritz and Nikki Lane, he set aside the fiddle, picked up a guitar and stepped to the front, beginning to write and sing his own material.

One would think, after years in the sideman role, that this would have proven tricky. Not for Joshua Hedley. “I think it did kinda come natural for me, just based on the fact that when I decided I wanted to do it, I’d been listening to country music for so long, that I just knew how to do it somehow,” he muses. “I don’t really consider myself a songwriter, I consider myself as somebody who has the ability to write songs, if that makes any sense.

“It’s just something that I feel I’ve figured out, I feel kinda sneaky about it, like I’ve figured out a trick or something, and I can write country songs.”

A true honky tonk country crooner, in a similar vein to Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner or George Jones, Hedley truly does have the knack, his music carrying with it the timelessness the aforementioned embody, unlike today’s pop/country, which Hedley likens to a “leftover beer.” A large part of his motif too, is mining the emotion that informs this style of music – life, love and loss, a smoky barroom, a beer wreathed in tears.

“I just want people to remember they have feelings, and that they’re valid,” Hedley has been quoted as saying. “I feel like country music, as of late, has sort of become just like a party, you know?” he says now. “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Van Halen, Poison, Motely Crue, it was just party time all the time. And then here comes Nirvana with this depressing as shit music which made everybody take notice, and everybody was like, wait a second, life isn’t always fun, there are other aspects that aren’t so great.

“Obviously it’s not your first choice to want to think about it, but I think it’s important to think about it.” Perhaps to highlight this point, it’s worth noting that on Mr. Jukebox, there are no less than three songs with the word ‘tears’ in their title, a fair indication as to the emotion contained within.

“People need to remember that they have feelings – it isn’t all just tailgates and Coors Lite,” Hedley laughs again.

Joshua Hedley July 2018 Australian Tour – WEBSITE

Thursday 19, Leadbelly, Sydney, NSW

Friday 20, Marrickville Bowlo, Sydney, NSW

Saturday 21, Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, VIC

Sunday 22, Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC

Thursday 26, Caravan Music Club, Melbourne, VIC

Friday 27 – Sunday 29, Groundwater Festival, Gold Coast, QLD

Gurrumul – The Beat Goes On

[Published in Good Weekend magazine, April 14 2018]



In July last year, filmmaker Paul Williams, sound engineer Pip Atherstone-Reid and Skinnyfish Music’s creative director Michael Hohnen were ensconced in an editing room at Windmill Studios in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. On multiple screens in front of them were the edits of Williams’s documentary, Gurrumul. Five years in the making, it traced the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Yolngu singer from Elcho Island 500km off the coast of Darwin who had, in the previous decade, taken the music world by storm.

Hohnen was on the phone with Gurrumul, his longtime friend and musical partner, and the biggest star in the Skinnyfish stable, a Darwin-based record label founded and co-owned by Hohnen. From a Darwin beach, Gurrumul chatted with Hohnen and Williams as they played him back one of the final musical pieces to be included in the documentary. Accompanying a scene towards the end of the film that depicts the funeral of his father, the score features Gurrumul singing, the sound bleeding into the strains of a French horn.

“Yep, spot on,” Gurrumul told the three in Melbourne. “Spot on.”

This was the final OK from Gurrumul, who as a co-producer had been active in most aspects of the film, and along with Hohnen and Melbourne-based composer Erkki Veltheim, had created, or reworked, about 50 original pieces of music specifically for the documentary.

What made this situation unusual though, was how it finished up. Instead of his usual “see you later”, Gurrumul ended the phone call by saying goodbye, something he’d not done before. “It happened in a way, that Michael then said to me, ‘Was that a bit strange?’,” Williams remembers. He pauses and sighs. “He’d finished his contribution, that side of things was over, and yeah… that was the last time I spoke to him.”

Three days later, on July 25, 2017, Gurrumul died in Royal Darwin Hospital. Aged only 46, he’d succumbed to organ failure relating to the hepatitis B he’d had since childhood. His condition had worsened in recent years, to the extent that Skinnyfish had retired the singer from touring in late 2015. “It was like he was becoming a shadow of his former self,” Hohnen recalls of the time. “He was extremely ill.”

Williams, who had known the singer for a number of years before beginning work on the documentary, seems a little haunted, like he thinks perhaps Gurrumul knew his time had come. “It was a strange way [for him] to sign off a conversation,” he says. “It was really only in retrospect, when we looked back, that we said, maybe that was goodbye.”


At the time of his death, Gurrumul was the highest selling indigenous musician in Australian history, a title he still holds. His eponymous 2008 solo debut was certified three times platinum in Australia, and appeared in top 20 album charts in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland upon its European release the following year. His second album, Rrakala (2011), made some small inroads into the American market, a notoriously tough market to crack, an attempt ultimately thwarted by his premature death.

His third release, The Gospel Album (2015), cemented what those close to him had known for years but others were only just beginning to realise – that this unassuming indigenous Australian, who was born blind and taught himself to play the guitar upside down, wasn’t merely an angelic voiced flash-in-the pan.

Yesterday, April 13Gurrumul posthumously added one final album to his canon. Djarimirri (Child Of The Rainbow) has been more than six years in the making and involves the singer, in Hohnen’s words, delving “deeper into the cultural elements of his music”. Preceding the release of Williams’s documentary by a couple of weeks (the film will be released on April 25), Djarimirri stands as the singer’s final gift to the world, one last reminder that his rise to fame was more than deserved.


While his rise may have seemed meteoric, Gurrumul paid his dues, a slow build that began with culture-bridging group Yothu Yindi in the 1990s. He played a number of instruments and contributed backing vocals to four of the band’s six albums, most notably its breakthrough 1991 release, Tribal Voice, and with Manuel Dhurrkay, fronted Saltwater Band, releasing three records with this group in the decade from 1999. By the time Skinnyfish came to release the eponymous Gurrumul in 2008, the man and his music were match fit.

Gurrumul toured the world before he was Gurrumul,” notes hip hop artist Adam Briggs, with whom Gurrumul collaborated in 2014 on the song ‘The Hunt’, from Briggs’s second full-length solo album, Sheplife. To Briggs’s mind, Gurrumul’s popularity was testament to his hard work, his musicality and his talent. “People forget he was in Yothu Yindi and Saltwater… so by the time he was Gurrumul, he was ready.”

Legendary producer Quincy Jones has noted of the singer, “this is one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I’ve ever heard”. It wasn’t just Jones – Sting,, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Australians Peter Garrett and Paul Kelly all count among the singer’s admirers. In garnering fans like these, Gurrumul sold out venues the world over, won awards, and confounded critics with his wide-ranging success within the western world.

“He was special in so many ways, in western and Yolngu worlds,” his niece, Miriam Yirrininba Dhurrkay, tells me. “He was writing these songs and … the words just come into his mind and heart, and even though he couldn’t see the nature, he was born to, you know, feel the nature.” To see without seeing. “Yeah. He had a special place to see, which was his heart.”

It was his heart that eventually gave out, having battled on through the liver and kidney failure relating to the existing hepatitis B. Dialysis was deemed the only option in combating his condition, but Gurrumul, who’d been admitted to the ICU department at Royal Darwin Hospital seven times in the year leading up to his death, was refusing treatment.

“Dialysis was not something that he enjoyed,” Hohnen says. “He basically, in the end, I believe, chose to not go on dialysis, not stay on it. And you don’t really have any options – it’s dialysis or nothing.”


Djarimirri is, essentially, an album that showcases ancient Yolngu chants, setting them against an orchestral background in order to make them sonically palatable to the western ear. Gurrumul was no stranger to orchestral work, having released in 2013 an entire live album accompanied by the Sydney Symphony. Where Djarimirri is different though, is in its minimalist orchestral traditions; Hohnen cites the likes of Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Phillip Glass as influences.

These Yolngu songs, some estimated at more than 4000 years old, were traditionally backed by the didgeridoo, or yidaki, repetitive rhythms that gave the lyrics a foundation from which to build. The trick with Djarimirri, was in replicating these sonic patterns on western instruments, while still leaving them recognisable to Yolngu people.

“Michael had this concept of combining the more traditional songs and chanting and yidaki patterns, with this kind of contemporary minimalist orchestral tradition,” confirms Erkki Veltheim, the Melbourne-based composer and violinist who helmed the album, and had played with Gurrumul on a number of occasions over the previous decade.

“At first I was kind of trying to turn it in my brain, trying to figure out how these different traditions could work together, but then the more I thought about it, the more it actually made sense because of the very nature of these traditional songs and the yidaki patterns, which kind of do have a lot of repetition in them, but also a lot of variation within that repetition, [which combines] really well with the orchestral minimalist tradition.”

Veltheim started listening to the recordings of songs Gurrumul had already made back on Elcho. From there, the task was to find instrumental transcriptions of the yidaki patterns and transcribe them into a western notation, to be played on western instruments.

“[That] was a real challenge, but also a great pleasure to come up with these arrangements,” he recalls. “And the most nerve-wracking thing for me, was whether Gurrumul himself and his family and the other people on Elcho would actually relate to these arrangements…. that was the key. The important thing [was] that every step of the process, we’ve made sure that we haven’t done anything that doesn’t communicate those songs.”

The 12 songs that make up Djarimirri all relate to specific totems and aspects of Yolngu culture – Waak (Crow) in E-Flat Major, Ngarrpiya (Octopus) in A-Flat Major, Gapu (Freshwater) in D Major, Baru (Saltwater Crocodile) in E-Flat Major, Marrayarr (Flag) in F-Sharp Major, to name a few. All songs ended up in major keys, a coincidence, which to Hohnen’s mind gives it a happy vibe.

Initially, Djarimirri isn’t an easy listen. It relies heavily on repetition, and Yolngu songs are traditionally quite short, so Gurrumul’s vocal contributions are fleeting. Repeat listens begin to cast new light on what’s happening though – there’s variation within the repetition, and the drone of the strings, the popping of horns, add their own weight to what is, within each song, a slow building story. The purity of the singer’s voice across this sonic soundscape tops it off.

Djarimirri is essentially an exercise in ethnomusicology – the keeping alive of this ancient music, albeit in a more modern fashion, so that those yet to come are able to access it, no matter their cultural background. “[Gurrumul had] hundreds of songs in his head,” says Hohnen. “He wasn’t writing a lot of new contemporary style songs but he probably [knew] 400 or 500 songs, traditionally.”


Completed early in 2017, the album was being prepared for release in the middle of that year. When Gurrumul died, they re-thought it, in part due to the fact that in Yolngu culture, when a member dies, their name, image and any music or art is retired.

“[We] held it for a year,” Hohnen confirms. “It would just not have been right to put it out. Although, spending a lot of time with the family, they sort of said to us, even at his funeral, no one’s stopped listening to his music, [they] all play it.”

In the press pack sent out with the advance stream of Djarimirri, there’s a note on the use of his image and name which reads, in part, “The family have given permission that, following the final funeral ceremony (which occurred at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island on November 24 last year), his name and image may once again be used publicly, to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly.”

“In most situations when an aboriginal person up here passes away, the name gets changed, and the music and imagery gets stopped,” explains Hohnen, “[but] it’s hard when someone’s as famous as this. I think it’s more they’re really proud… and I think Yolngu don’t want him forgotten, that’s what they said to us. There’s this ownership of him being a public representation as well.”

When we speak, Hohnen is just pulling himself back together after what he describes as a fairly dysfunctional six months. “It’s affected Mark and I very personally,” he says, of his co-founder at Skinnyfish Music, Mark Grose, “because [Gurrumul] was such a unique and happy person, someone who, no matter how recalcitrant, always made you feel that fun and music and life and traditional culture was here to be lived and loved.”

Gurrumul was Skinnyfish Music’s biggest artist, and his success enabled the label to expand and focus on other acts like Caity Baker and The Lonely Boys. Royalties from Djarimirri will flow, in part, into the Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation, which will us the money to “create greater opportunities for remote Indigenous young people to realise their full potential and contribute to culturally vibrant and sustainable communities”.

It’s not lost on anyone involved with the making of the record how sad it is that its main player won’t be here to see it out into the world. “We wanted to release the album while he was alive so he cold live it out on the airwaves around his community and further afield,” says Hohnen. “But I now feel like we did everything possible to live up to the standards that he and his family expected of us. The recording is as much a representation of all Yolngu.”

This is what Djarimirri is primarily about – legacy. “There’s different ways people can go about activism,” Hohnen continues. “There’s anger, abuse, there’s hurt, there’s quite sinister ways, destructive ways. The journey that we took with him was almost the opposite. And, for me, his legacy was opening people’s hearts to one of the greatest assets of this country.”

Briggs, who became a friend of Gurrumul’s in the years after their 2014 collaboration, agrees. “This last record… is testament to him transcending genre and transcending what’s expected of an indigenous artist . This album is an orchestral piece, so it’s sheet music… it could be read by a conductor or composer in Germany, and they’d understand it. It transcends cultural barriers, because music is an international language. Anyone will be able to read this, and translate it and play it. Even in his death, he’s transcended genres and cultural barriers. Him and Michael, they’ve delivered this gift of music.”

Gurrumul’s niece says his life and music are still inspiring young Yolngu people. “A lot of youngsters in the north-east Arnhem land region, where G comes from, and other youngsters from all around NT, from every aboriginal community… a lot of youngsters are doing music today. Most of the young people I know, they want to continue his legacy, they want to show the world that they can do it… if he can do it, why can’t we do it, you know?”