Kristina Murray Interview 

The Independent Country and Americana music scene in Nashville continues to flourish, having generated a wealth of talented and outstanding artists over the past few years. Names such as J.P. Harris, Erin Rae, Nikki Lane, Lillie Mae, Kelsey Waldon, Andrew Combs, Lera Lynn, Pat Reedy and Joshua Hedley immediately spring to mind, to name check a few. All these acts have released stand out albums in recent years, some with little or no financial support from the music industry. Kristina Murray is yet another such like artist. Highly regarded within the Nashville traditional music community ("The best country vocalist out there at the moment" - according to J.P. Harris) she has released one of Lonesome Highway’s Albums of The Year titled Southern Ambrosia. Not surprising, given the quality of her 2013 debut album Unravelin’ and her live shows. It was a pleasure to catch up with the engaging and straight-talking Murray who discussed the album and the realities of an independent artist surviving in an increasingly unforgiving industry.

Tell me about your decision to relocate in Nashville in 2014, your expectations and initial impressions when arriving there?

I relocated to Nashville for several reasons. I was born and raised in the South, and after six years in Colorado, it was just time to come home and be closer to family. I was tired of the snow and cold. Additionally, Colorado is an isolated music community, and it’s difficult to gain higher-level career traction without the music industry business connections plentiful in a city like Nashville; touring out of such a big state in the middle of the country is more difficult than on the east coast/south, and I started to crave more musical variety than what Colorado offered for me. Moving to Nashville, I expected to be humbled by the world-class musicianship (and I was, and still am!), and I expected to find a community of likeminded country music enthusiasts and other singer-songwriters; took a little while longer than my patience typically allows, but I did find it and am so grateful to my community here in Nash.  

Many artists speak of being ‘lifted up by greatness’ by moving to Nashville given it’s musical traditions and community. Was this the case for you?

Absolutely; it’s simultaneously humbling and inspiring to live in the city that basically created what we know as country music. So much incredible (and not just country) music has been made in this city; because of that history, combined with my peers and heroes living and working in this region, I certainly feel continuously motivated to be a better musician, singer, writer, guitarist, collaborator and band leader, sometimes to my own detriment and exhaustion. Though I won’t always admit it, it is astonishing to me how much musical progress I’ve made in the last four and half years. 

There appears to be a particularly supportive community among the musical immigrants that move to Nashville rather than a competitive environment. Has this been your experience? 

Yes and no; there are certainly genuinely supportive pockets of the community and again, I am fortunate to have strong friendships with working musicians who help and support each other, but—and especially being a woman—there is a sense of competition that is inherently in the business. If labels, organizations, festivals, special events, radio shows, venues, journalists and media outlets made more of a concerted effort to include more than just one or two woman-artists, I think that feeling of competition would dissipate some. 

With property prices soaring in East Nashville over recent years it must be increasingly difficult affordability wise for artists to survive there. Is this a genuine concern among your musical community?

Certainly it’s a concern. I’ve personally never even been able to afford to live in East Nashville and have always lived in significantly less wealthy parts of town. (I know for myself, in addition to pursuing my music career goals, I have to work two jobs to support my artist career and also my basic needs and bills.) All this time working regular jobs siphons time away from writing, playing, practicing, booking. This often happens though; artists come in and create a rad community, then branders and “tastemakers” want to be a part of that community, or worse to commercially exploit it, in whatever capacity they can and thus push out the artists. It’s an old story. 

The American Legion has become, in recent years, a breeding ground for younger artists rekindling the classic country flames. Nashville artists like J.P. Harris, Joshua Hedley, Kelsey Waldon, Pat Reedy and from farther afield Kayla Ray and Zephaniah OHora are also producing quality ‘real’ country music. From the front line are you detecting a growing appreciation from punters and even more so from the industry itself?

People that appreciate great music have always been around, so I wouldn’t say it’s a new growing appreciation so much as it seems it’s currently trendy and hip to support traditional leaning country and maybe folks are just jumping on the bandwagon? Or, perhaps listeners are just hungry for something with substance, I don’t know, I’m not an expert! I do know that JP, Pat, Kelsey, Zeph and myself…we all create and study and listen to and sing this music because we love this music and will continue to make it long after “the trend” is gone. I don’t really have a good grasp on—or, to be frank—care about what “the industry” appreciates. If somebody wants to pay me money for my song, if a label wants to pick me up… great…I desperately need it! But, like Welch wrote and sang, “gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” 

There is no roadmap anymore for artists like yourself to follow which inevitably leads to a sustainable career in the music industry. The talent is as strong as ever but the opportunities for exposure seem increasingly difficult. How frustrating is it to deal with this on a practical level?

How much time do you have? The music business is arbitrary, impractical, without rhyme or reason, and what works for some artist and bands, doesn’t work for others. Seems to me that unless an artist has a financier, whether that’s independent or family wealth, or via a label, it’s rather impossible to get to the “next level.” Hard work and talent only go so far; I know, I’ve been working for over ten years, and know a ridiculous amount of artists and bands working much longer and harder than I have that are still not at a sustainable career level. You’re right in that there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to talent, but without the financial component…well…I guess I just have to accept that I’ll be a fringe artist. I’ve just recently started to be OK with it.

You’ve spoken about your love of The Allman Brothers growing up in Georgia and your exposure to Bluegrass when living in Colorado. When did traditional country make its initial impression on you?

As a little girl, I heard Patsy Cline and some Loretta, and my momma had a couple Emmylou, Jessi Colter and Joni Mitchell albums; as a middle and high schooler, I was into 90’s country too, like Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Trisha. But the real, hard stuff, I didn’t get into that until college. I worked at a summer camp in the north Georgia mountains on my summers off from school and we listened to Hank and Junior, Waylon, and bluegrass…a lot of that stuff. And oh boy, when I found Buck and Don, and George Jones, it was all downhill from there; I was obsessed. 

The album cover of your excellent album Southern Ambrosia has a striking resemblance to Emmylou’s Luxury Liner, with the only disparity being that your image is slightly less revealing. Coincidence or intended?

Ha! I think it was a faraway subconsciousness? I studied so much Emmylou in my early years of playing music, my early and mid-twenties, and I absolutely love ‘Luxury Liner’ (my second fave Emmylou record, after ‘Quarter Moon’). However, I didn’t even think about that connection when I first saw the original polaroid (which is slightly less dark than the cover), until I showed a friend the finished ‘Southern Ambrosia’ cover and she said that same thing about the resemblance to ‘Luxury Liner.’

The album most certainly establishes you as an accomplished songwriter notwithstanding your well recognised vocal ability. Over what period were the songs created?

Man, thanks! Kind words indeed! ‘The Ballad of Angel and Donnie’ and ‘Lovers and Liars’ are the oldest tunes; I wrote those in 2014. ‘Jokes On Me’ and ‘Slow Kill’ were written in 2017, so a span of four years. I generally throw out about 98% of what I write, because it’s not good enough; I’m definitely not a prolific songwriter, and used to worry A LOT about that. More so recently, however, I’m embracing that if the few I write a year are really good, then I’m ok with my non-prolific-ness.  It’s all very subjective however, and that fucks with me.

How difficult was it opening up your heart and writing material from a very personal and autobiographical backstory? 

It’s pretty much the only way I know how to write. When I try to write from other perspectives or stories that are not my own, it’s difficult for me and the result almost always feels cheesy and stupid, and I’m afraid that everyone knows I’m making it up and “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I adhere to the writer’s adage: write what you know. 

You’ve managed to approach downbeat subject matter with an upbeat sound on tracks like Slow Killand The Ballad Of Angel & Donnie, in some ways drowning the sorrowful theme. More often than not, other’s songs dealing with topics such as booze and pills dependency tend to be less pacey to say the least. Was this premeditated? 

So awesome that you caught that! ‘Angel and Donnie’ just spilled out that way; the muse was working ferociously the night I wrote that one, and I like that the intense and frantic sonic element of the tune reflects the story of those nefarious characters and their crippling, murderous loyalty and addictions. ‘Slow Kill’ was different. I wrote that song at a mid-tempo, and I still love to perform it live that way so that the words are heard more clearly. However the way it turned out on the record, man, it’s my favorite cut on the album! The lyrics of that tune are so hopeless and desperate, it needed an upbeat musical component to be listenable. It’s a bit of my bluegrass training shining through: songs that sound happy and upbeat but, under the surface, are actually pretty dark topics. 

The contradictions in respect of being a Southerner are aired on the opening track Made In America and continue throughout the album. Conflicting pride and shame, a suggested difficult growing up also get an airing.  Did the writing for the album act as an opportunity to purge these opposites? 

Southern identity is a tricky thing: the tension and juxtaposition of pride and shame, of paying homage to positive traditions of being southern (food, politeness, accents), while trying to redefine tired stereotypes of the south, and acknowledge our violent, oppressive past. There’s a desire in me to loudly recognize that the effects of cultural, economic, racial, religious and political history in this region creates what we are today, for better, but, more often than not it seems, for worse. I’m just trying to put these stories and perspectives and opinions on the table and say ‘hey. look. listen.’ I don’t ever really think of my work in songwriting as “writing for an album;” these are just truth-telling songs and luckily, this collection of songs that became Southern Ambrosia had that common thread. 

The final track Joke’s On Me is exceptionally personal and raw. A pivotal and defiant statement to close the album before moving on?

The sequencing fell so naturally for this record, and I personally either love a giant, banging album closer ORa soft, introspective self-reflection. Seems to me that great albums are a recorded imprint of an artist’s life at that point in time. Once Joke's was written in spring of 2017, I knew it was the closer for the album because that was a dominant feeling in my life for a good year after my breakup with my long term partner. The song is very personal and true to me, and exactly how I felt about that breakup. The track on the record is the demo and we chose that purposefully so you could feel the raw pain of it all.  

You’ve put the hard graft in, written the songs, recorded the album and released it.  As an independent artist what measures do you now take to get the album to as wide an audience as possible? 

I ran a PR campaign for three months prior to the record release, and a two month radio campaign once it was released, but unfortunately that’s all my “budget” could afford. I’ll just keep pushing the record independently as a one woman DIY machine and play the long game, I guess. I’d love some help via representation from a label, booking agent or manager, but that has yet to come for me. Five years after my first record came out, people are still finding and listening to that one, so onward and upward!

Do you intend touring the album with a band in The States further afield than Tennessee or concentrate on venues closer to home?

I’d love to tour all over the US/Canada, and I am determined to do it! However—and this isn’t new news—unless you’re a well-established act, have a booking agent (I don’t) or have some mailbox money coming in, touring is extremely expensive. I’d prefer to take a four piece band (five piece being ideal) but I think, strictly for financial reasons, I’ll have to do solo touring for a while, to establish stronger fan bases. 

Do you see Europe as an option touring wise?

Would love to tour Europe! I toured Sweden and Norway this summer and absolutely loved it. So, yes, I’d LOVE to get over there. Again, however, see “the touring is extremely expensive” comment above. 

It often appears to me that quite a number of artists, both male and female, are recording a country album early career and then changing direction towards a more indie sound in their follow up album. Do you see yourself changing direction or have you even had the chance to consider a future project so soon after releasing Southern Ambrosia? 

For me, I know I’m going to continue to write and record art I think is good, meaningful, true, and worth releasing…however it comes out! I think artists should make their art, in whatever sound or shape that takes form.  

Interview by Declan Culliton


Cliff Westfall Interview

"Hot damn. I don’t know who the hell Cliff Westfall is or where he’s been hiding out for so many years, but he just released a hot shit country record that will whip the pants off of most others released this year and many from years prior, and get you making room on your list of favourite artists’’. I’m borrowing that quote from Kyle “The Triggerman” Coroneos, creator and head writer for Saving Country, guardian of ‘real’ country music and slayer of the commercial garbage currently impersonating country music. The quote precisely reflects Lonesome Highway’s opinion of Westfall and his debut solo album Baby You Win, which made an equally lofty impact on us when it came across our radar earlier in the year.  There’s a lot more to Westfall than great songs, hillbilly boogie, honky tonk rockin’ and keeping essential traditional music alive and kicking. Behind all these admirable virtues is also a musical philosopher and enthusiast. 

How would you best describe your music?

I sometimes call it electrified honky tonk. I like to play with a five- or even six-piece band, and keep the music pretty raucous at live shows, with a lot of high country harmonies, twangy guitars and pedal steel, turned up to 10 at least if not 11. 

To come at it from what it’s not: People often describe my music as retro, but I really don’t see it that way. It doesn’t offend me or anything – in fact, I think it’s intended as a compliment, but I’m not trying to recreate what Lefty or Hank or Merle did (not that I could anyway). I’m trying to write and perform songs for right now, not create a museum-quality replica of something from another era. At the same time, classic honky tonk is very much my inspiration, so if people are comparing my songs to the classics that I love, I’m honoured. 

One other thought on the tension between tradition and newness: I think tradition is at the core of what country music is about, both from the standpoint of stylistic continuity on a musical level, as well as being concerned with the role of tradition in people’s lives. I think that I’m a traditionalist on both of those levels, or at least I try to be. If you’re doing it right, you’re writing in your own world but having kind of an ongoing conversation with the past too. And if you’re doing it wrong – I’m thinking here of a lot of contemporary Nashville “product” – you end up with stuff that doesn’t seem related at all to what came before.

I have to ask you about the striking album cover. A throwback to previous decades?

Ha, yes – thank you, I would say that the cover IS pretty retro! I don’t think I’ve said this in an interview before, but the image was inspired by the cover of the Louvin Brothers album Tragic Songs of Life. I showed it to my friend Billy Woodward, a New York-based artist, as an example of something that I thought would fit the vibe, and what you see was his response. I thought he hit a home run with it. 

A couple of things I love about it: 1) I’m a huge fan of early film noir – films like The Asphalt Jungleand Out of the Past– and it looks like it could have been a movie poster from the era; and 2) That image of the dejected guy in the chair is obviously me, but I never posed for it; Billy just kind of put me in there. I thought that was cool. 

Fortunately, the album itself is of an equally high standard musically. Tell me about its conception and how long you’ve been working on it?

The big picture is that I had a bunch of songs that I knew I wanted to record, and I had fallen in with a bunch of really amazing players, so it seemed like the time to go for it.

The songs range in age. I had been part of a honky tonk band called The Steamboat Disasters in New York in the early 2010s, and a few of the songs on Baby You Windate back that far (e.g., “It Hurt Her to Hurt Me,” “I’ll Play the Fool”). After that band broke up, I formed an acoustic duo called The Needmore Brothers that played mostly in the Catskills, a couple of hours north of New York City. Some of the songs came from that period too (“The Man I Used to Be,” “Sweet Tooth,” plus the cover we did of “Hanging On” – in fact, my Needmores partner Matthew Horn (a/k/a “Short Fuse Needmore”) sings harmonies on the record a couple of songs that we used to do together (“Sweet Tooth,” “Hanging On”). And then, there were some that I never really played until I started going out under my own name around 2016 – for example, “More and More,” “Baby You Win,” “The Odds Were Good.”

I have to give a lot of credit to Graham Norwood, who started playing with me as a guitarist and harmony singer around that time. He helped me put the band together, he’s one of the two producers of the album, he and I together chose the songs to put on Baby You Winas well as what to leave back for the next one. And also to producer Bryce Goggin of Trout Recording in Brooklyn. He’s better known as a rock producer (The Ramones, Phish, Antony & The Johnsons, Evan Dando), but he understood exactly what we were going for, and created a great working vibe for the band too.

You have certainly poured your heart into it. Beautifully packaged with an impressive lyric book, were you determined to tick every box in terms of its presentation, regardless of the financially outlay involved?

Thank you. I wanted to put out something that I’d want if I was buying it. And for me, especially as a kid, the package was always such a huge part of the experience of listening to a record. Put the album on, pore over the cover art, read the lyric insert (if any) for the millionth time… repeat.

It pays homage to the early sound of Dwight Yoakam, an artist very close to your own heart?

I’m really glad to hear that, because Dwight Yoakam is foundational for me. What I love about Dwight is the way that he brought in elements of rock and roll and still managed to stay very much a country traditionalist in terms of his songwriting. I think actually that you could say the same thing about Dwight’s own hero (and one of mine too), Buck Owens. Both of those guys managed to do the seemingly contradictory thing of pushing the envelope while writing songs that felt like old standards.

You’ve mixed the standard country fall backs of booze, heartache and regret with no end of humour on tracks like Till The Right One Comes Along and the title track. Listeners to your style of country often are taken in by the melody without actually exploring the lyrics. Your lyrics appear to be every bit as critical as your melodies? 

Again, thank you. As a fan, I have always been attracted to good lyrics. I love songs that tell a story, or make me laugh, or make me think. At the same time, good lyrics gain part of their power by the way they drive the rhythm and melody. I think that when somebody really does it right, the words and music seem nearly inseparable, so that you can hardly imagine one without the other.

I’m also glad that you noticed that “Till the Right One Comes Along,” which is kind of a dark weepy ballad, has elements of humour too. I think that’s true in life generally, that you can say serious things with some degree of humour. It’s also part of the way I was brought up –Southerners and the Irish probably have that in common!

What writers switched the lights on for you and in particular which ones encouraged you to incorporate humour in your writing?

In no particular order: Roger Miller, Don Gibson, Shel Silverstein, Jerry Chesnut (who wrote “A Dime at a Time” and “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” for Del Reeves, in addition to stone classic weepers like “Another Place, Another Time” and “A Good Year for the Roses”), Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (who wrote hits for The Everly Brothers and Little Jimmy Dickens). Among contemporary writers who inspire me in that way, Robbie Fulks and Mike Stinson are both great. 

Tell me about growing up in Owensboro Kentucky and the music that you were exposed to as a child?

I’m glad you asked that. The music and culture that I was exposed to there as a kid really shaped what I’m trying to do as an artist. For one thing, my family was full of talkers. Family stories, often laugh-till-you-cried hilarious even if the underlying events might have been kind of dark, got told and re-told, and that was just part of how we related to each other. I thought that was completely the norm until I moved away from home and realized that it wasn’t. 

On the musical front, I thought that adults everywhere listened to country music, and that kids listened to rock and roll, and that that was the way of the world. 

My folks absolutely loved country music – they honeymooned in Nashville and talked for years about meeting Hee Haw comedian Archie Campbell in a bar, to give you a sense of how deeply they loved it. They were pretty old school as parents: If there was a choice between what I wanted to hear and what they did, it wasn’t a choice at all. So that classic honky tonk sound was all around me, even if as a kid, I preferred the AM rock and roll stations. 

My dad – technically my stepdad but he’s the one who raised me – was a police officer, and he was a big, tough guy. My mom worked in a liquor distillery. My neighbourhood was pretty tough in its own way, too. I recall being introduced to other kids as “This is Cliff, his dad’s a cop but he’s cool,” which may give you a sense of the general vibe in the neighbourhood.

Owensboro was a great place to grow up. It’s on the Ohio River, kind of industrial (liquor production, steel, coal, etc.), but it was surrounded by rural areas – including musically famous places like Rosine (homeplace of Bill Monroe, which is also where my  great-grandfather was from), Muhlenberg County, which produced Merle Travis, the Everlys, and others. But a lot of those rural areas were dry, and Owensboro was kind of a Sin City where people would come to drink and party. So, there was just kind of a honky tonk vibe, and my folks definitely partook of it pretty liberally. As a 10- or 12-year-old, I would sometimes mix the drinks at their parties – everybody drank bourbon and Coke, so it wasn’t exactly advanced mixology. The only real challenge for me was to see how stiff I could make them without getting them sent back. And country music blaring the whole time: Jones, Haggard, Waylon and Willie, Conway Twitty, Loretta, Dolly, Charley Pride, etc.

What music and artists outside country made the strongest impression on you? 

I could go on all day about that too. I probably lean mostly towards vintage Southern music – early rock and roll, gospel, and R&B. The early rockers weren’t that far from country anyway, but I particularly love Chuck Berry, who I think was the greatest lyricist ever because he was so precise and rhythmic and at the same time so hilarious and smart. Buddy Holly and Elvis loom pretty large for me as well. I also love LOTS of R&B and soul music: Percy Mayfield, who most famously wrote “Hit the Road, Jack,” Ike and Tina, pretty much anyone who was on Memphis-based Hi Records – Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright. And a million others probably.

I also love a lot of early garage rock, punk, and pub rock. Nick Lowe is one of the greatest songwriters ever, I think. X, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the Sonics, etc. But I love lots of the stuff you can hear on any classic rock station, too: I’m a huge fan of Dylan, the Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles, Creedence.

How pivotal was the surgency In Cowpunk in directing you towards performing?

When I went away to college in Lexington, Kentucky, cowpunk was just beginning to be a thing there. My friends and I were especially into Jason and the Scorchers, but most of the bands doing that came through town at one time or another, and there was a thriving local scene that I was part of both as a fan and performer. It’s weird to think about, because it seems obvious now, but it came as a complete revelation to me that you could mix country with fast, hard rock and roll. Learning that my two favourite things could just be joined together like that was amazing – it was like discovering how good bananas and peanut butter taste together or something. (Something I highly recommend, by the way.) And also, the punk DIY ethos carried over into cowpunk, so we were like, why can’t we do that? 

Anyway, yes, I think it was really pivotal in getting me to go for it. At the same time, I was always someone who leaned more towards the country side of the cowpunk equation among my friends and bandmates. 

So, when did Cliff Westfall the listener become Cliff Westfall the performer and do you recall your first gig and some of the setlist?

I dabbled a bit with singing with musician friends in high school but didn’t really have any true gigs until I got to college in Lexington. I started a duo with a friend of mine, doing a mix of originals (most now mercifully forgotten), and covers of everyone from the Butthole Surfers to Hank Williams. But I don’t remember exactly what the first gig was or what we played. Later on, we added a rhythm section and got a whole lot louder, which was a blast.

The dreaded crossover pop country market is strong nationwide in The States due to the marketing machines driving it across so many Radio Stations. However, classic or traditional country appears to be making some impact outside Nashville and Austin at present with growing audiences in California and New York. Has this been your experience?

Oh, definitely. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s an increasing recognition that people doing things their own way, and playing outside of the rules of corporate country, are the true innovators. Just look at the Grammys this year, where it seems like the majority of country nominees are outside that cookie cutter mould. I think that’s cause for optimism, even if the industry machinery is still pushing pop country. I know from looking at my own Spotify numbers that I do well in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect – Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee are up there, but people are listening in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York too. 

Are there many opportunities to perform live in New York for you?

Most of the venues in New York are pretty open to diverse genres. And on top of that, there are a lot of country and country-influenced acts here too, so it’s really not that hard to get bookings. On one hand, country is not the go-to genre here the way that it is in the South, but New York is still a huge city, with a decent-sized audience for just about everything under the sun, definitely including country. And I think we’re making a few converts along the way, too. I sometimes do bills with indie rock bands and end up playing for people who say they didn’t think they liked country music, but they liked our show. It’s kind of an awkward compliment to get, because it makes me want to defend country as an art form. On the other hand, if my image of country music was coming from mainstream country radio, I’d recoil in horror too.

Have you ever been tempted to relocate to Austin or Nashville?

Funny you should ask. I’m probably not going to make a permanent move, at least in the short term, but I have plans in the works to start spending real time in each of them. I love New York and I have roots here now, but those two cities are both so important, and both are chock full of amazing players too. And Nashville for me is just a couple of hours from where I grew up, so it’d be nice to be close to home.

Last question. It’s 1986 and Cliff Westfall has just released Baby You Win on the Reprise label.  The launch of stardom?

Ha! I’d love to think so. I do think it would’ve fit in well with the stuff that was going on back then. But the truth is, I couldn’t have written this album without getting a lot more life experience first.

Interview by Declan Culliton  Photography by Rosie Cohe and Diego Britt (live)



Kayla Ray Interview

The topic for our weekly Lonesome Highway Radio Show on 103.2 Dublin City FM some weeks back was "Outlaw Ladies in Country Music of Today and Yesterday." Nine artists featured, not surprisingly Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, KD Laing and Elizabeth Cook were all selected. Possibly not quite as obvious but equally deserving of the accolade were Charline Arthur, Gail Davies, Kimmie Rhodes and Audrey Auld. All these names would be familiar to hardcore traditional country music lovers. The final artist that we felt also justified the distinction was a young lady from Waco Texas named Kayla Ray, her recently released album Yesterday & Me having made quite an impression on the lovers of all things classic country amongst us at Lonesome Highway. What’s principally notable about Ray, unlike so many of her contemporaries, is that she is heart and soul country, not someone dabbling experimentally in the genre or playing the pop / country card trick. A flag bearer for traditional country among her generation perhaps. ‘’Wow. I’m thrilled to be a part of that list. I would be proud to be considered that, carrying on tradition via truth is certainly my intent.’’

Yesterday & Me follows her debut album Love & Liquor and contains lyrics that are particularly striking and forthright, projecting a no holds barred honesty in her writing. "I wrote all of those songs over the course of the year or two following my 2014 release. This album is very reflective of the stages of my life at the time and any trials or tribulations of that era bore great lessons worth sharing in a very transparent fashion.’’

The opening track Rockport is the ideal song to enlighten the listener of the direction in which the album is heading. A tale of intended liberation and challenge that descends into drug addiction and suicide, it was written by Jon Dews, a friend of Ray’s. "Jon is a brilliant writer, a brilliant dude and an all-around great friend. I knew the first night he played it for me I had to cut it. The melody paired with such a vivid story just pulled me in and blew me away."

The other cover on the album Once A Week Cheaters, sung with Colton Hawkins, is a timeless male/female country ballad that would sit comfortably on any Porter Dolly or Jones/Wynette album. It was written, but never recorded, by the exceptionally talented country singer Keith Whitley, who passed away at such an early age from prolonged alcohol abuse. "My friend Erin Enderlin - an incredible songwriter out of Nashville. Look her up, y’all won’t regret it - had been given this demo along with a few others by a man who was an early plugger for Whitley. It was a real honor to have the shot to record that song. And, I’ve known Colton Hawkins (we call him Banjo) for ages. We’ve knocked around the Waco circuit together for years now and I’ve always thought his delivery was so effortless and expressive. He’s a big Whitley nut just as I am and I knew he would be perfect for the job.’’

The ongoing opiates epidemic and the whole issue of anti-depressant prescription, which combined are the biggest killer in The States at present, and the blatant involvement of the pharmaceutical industry and medical industry, is addressed inPills, in both a humorous yet ‘in your face’ manner. A YouTube video captures Ray performing it with a smile on her face. However, it’s a serious topic that she obviously has strong feelings about. "Sure, we live in a very strange time concerning big pharma, vulture capitalism and the perpetuation of addiction. No one is immune and it’s worth shedding some light on.’’

There has been no shortage of gifted female artists from The Lone Star State over the years. Rosie Flores, Nanci Griffith, Lee Ann Rimes and Lee Ann Womack have been household names for decades together with the more recent breakthrough artists Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and to a lesser degree Sunny Sweeney and Sarah Jarosz. In a comparable manner to both Lambert and Musgraves in particular, Ray writes passionately about her home State, but in an edgy fashion that is less likely to have Country Music Radio queuing up to playlist her material. The track Red Rivers Valley’s Run Dry is very much a slice of hometown Texas for Ray, the subject matter which is very close to her heart. "Yes! You could say that. Tifni Simons sings on this track with me. She was our favourite bar tender at Papa Joes, our local haunt. The story is reflective of both her life as well as that of the journey of many women I’ve known, struggling to find their place and something that represents survival. While very little of this story is literal, I do believe that there are elements of existence that happen no matter the location. This track is a co-write with my dear friend Joshua Barnard, who played all of the lead guitar on this album. He and I were kids together and he knows me better than most. We were touring through the Red River Valley and I presented him with the story line to which he replied, “Sounds like a waltz to me”. The rest is country music.’’

There’s no end of torment and suffering on the album, beautifully articulated it has to be said. The album’s title Yesterday & Me and the track itself is as much about looking forward as over one’s shoulder, implying lessons learned and gained. ‘’Thanks for your kind words. It means a lot that you listened so closely. And yes, absolutely. This song as well as the album as a whole is very personal. It is about pain, struggle, triumph, regret, reflection and the hope that tomorrow brings.’ 

A preference for writing autobiographically emanates throughout the album, potentially therapeutic in attempting to put closure on certain experiences. "As I age and venture out, I am enjoying more of a story line building approach. However, my innate reactions as a writer have always been to write from an autobiographical standpoint and, writing has certainly always been my go-to in working through any emotionally challenging situation. What is refreshing about Ray’s music is that it is both natural and free willed. Her influences and musical backstory have always been in country music. Unlike many of her peers she did not embrace a rebellious grunge period in her teens.Her signature sound is unapologetically classic country, which is a breath of fresh air given that the majority of ‘country’ music being produced these days is anything but traditional and more mainstream pop or rock. ‘’This means so much to me. I am trying to write with purpose and that gets so easily washed away with all the distractions of mainstream production. I guess I just missed grunge! Country music still deals with all the sex drugs and rock and roll themes, it just does it in a way I have always found more relatable.’’

The classic country revival or continuity seems to be more common in Texas than Tennessee. Artists following Ray’s roadmap are often not given the light of day in Nashville, or are diverted down a Music Row pop backroad. The impediments are not defeating her and if anything, seem to create a motivation for her to keep on fighting the machine. ‘’ I do see a big current change happening and it is exciting!!! As far as frustration goes, I welcome the challenge. Working from a deficit and creating triumph in the name of something I care about is something I take great pride in. So, as far as that dilemma goes, I say bring it on. I will certainly never quit." 

Ray’s musical journey to date reads as the perfect apprenticeship, both technically and administration wise.  She toured with The Texas Playboys as a teenager gaining invaluable experience in many ways and the perfect introduction to performing in the live setting. "I remember being scared to death most of the time! Those guys are legendary!’’ She progressed from there to work as tour manager to Jason Eady while still in her early twenties, more priceless exposure to the highs and lows of touring.  

"Oh, you know all great country songs start with, once I was dating this tele picker. Ha! Really though a mutual acquaintance was playing lead for him at the time. There was a management need to be filled, and I was going to school for commercial music management, (as to eliminate the middle man in my own career for as long as possible). I saw an opportunity to hop in a van with boys I loved who made music I loved. I was free and I could do it, so I jumped at the chance. Some of my fondest touring memories were made with those Eady guys and I learned so very much from each of them.’’

The connection with Eady proved fruitful, he went on to co-produce the new album with Ray. It also resulted in an introduction to Eady’s wife Courtney Patton and other accomplished female songwriters on the same page as her. "I just love Courtney so much. Watching their relationship blossom has been so awesome. She is great. So are Brennan Leigh, Erin Enderlin, and Jamie Lin Wilson just to make a few." Another common tread between Ray and Eady is their love of all things Merle Haggard! "Oh yeah! Our camp invented the game of the “Hag Off”. Basically, knowing more Merle than anyone else in the pickers circle. It’s a heated match till bloody the end. Ha!’’ 

Given how vast Texas is, Ray could probably spend a lifetime touring that State. However, she harbours ambitions to try and reach a greater audience and in particular to try and bring her music to audiences in Europe. ‘’Oh yeah! We’ve toured in 16 other States since the album release, with no intent of slowing down. I fully plan of touring in Europe just as soon as I can figure out how to make the logistics work! Honestly, I look at it like I do music here in the States, taking a hit is like placing a bet and I can’t wait to put my chips on Europe!’’

The commercial success of artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Clark and Miranda Lambert must result in some head scratching and thinking ‘maybe I should dumb it down and sugar coat my music a bit’ or would that be taboo? "I think we live in a time where both are obtainable. I have my goal and I don’t intend to waiver. Should I be awarded the opportunity I still fully intend to hold fast to my integrity.’’

The touring continues for Ray, continuing to get more people on board, but she’s also at the planning stage of her next musical venture."I think we have a lot of steam left in this album however, I do have a really neat project in the works but, I’ve decided to keep its content under wraps for the moment. I will say, the boys and I are awfully excited about it!’’Hopefully we get the chance to see Ray perform in Ireland in 2019. "I would LOVE to do this! Any reader willing to give some advice on how to make it happen please feel free to reach out. Have guitar, will travel!’’

Interview by Declan Culliton


Hannah Aldridge Interview

Existing as a musician in today’s overcrowded market requires a lot more than simply talent. The real dynamic is getting exposure, which for the majority of emerging artists is the first and most difficult obstacle. ‘Can I afford a publicist, a tour manager, a plugger?’‘Should I tour solo or with a band?’‘Can I even afford to tour?’These are ongoing dilemmas that particularly challenge American and Canadian acts that tour Europe, given that many of them recognise a greater opportunity to establish a core following in Europe than in their homelands. Without the financial support of a record company, a luxury that few enjoy, the cost of touring can be crippling and offer little reward for the hours of travelling in cramped vans, sleeping in less than salubrious accommodation and clocking in exhaustingly long days and weeks.  

With all this in mind it was interesting to chat with the Muscle Shoals native Hannah Aldridge a few short weeks after she returned home to draw breath after a gruelling European tour - a tour which also included recording her third album. Given the loyalty and support given to Aldridge by her U.K. followers, she decided to record a live album in The Lexington in London and rather than perform with a full band she undertook quite a novel method for the recording. The show comprised of a mix of solo songs by Aldridge, duets with a number of U.K. artists and the guest artists also got to perform a few of their own songs. She closed the show by getting the full entourage on stage to perform her signature tune Burning Down Birmingham. Altogether it promises to have the makings of a fine album!

But lets go back a few years. The daughter of country music songwriter Walt Aldridge, it cant have been easy to have a Music Hall of Fame inductee as a father and to garner so much industry attention at an early stage in her career. I wondered how much pressure that placed on her as a young performing artist. 

“I think initially I really struggled to find myself as an artist and to feel very confident when performing, but a couple hundred shows later I started to notice that people stopped addressing me as ‘Hannah,Walt Aldridge’s daughter’ and started using my name as a stand-alone statement. That was when I really started to feel like I wasnt living in that shadow.”

Aldridge recorded her debut album Razor Wire at an analogue studio called‘1979’, four years after a traumatic period in her life which found the then 27 year old divorced, with a young child. The album was raw, bursting with emotion and possibly therapeutic by way of tackling the demons that haunted her at that time. Hard hitting songs like Howlin’ Bones and Parchment displayed an ability to write extremely personal and honest material.

“I think I just try to write the dialogue that goes on in my head more than anything. I write in a very conversational way because a lot of my writing is me trying to make sense of my own experiences and thoughts. Sometimes I write a song and sit back and listen and I have no idea how I strung those thoughts together. Its like pulling the curtains back on my inner dialogue.”

Her second album Gold Rush followed three years later, with less expression of anger but lots of regret and reflection on songs like No Heart Left Behind, Shouldnt Hurt So Bad and Living On Lonely. It also includes the dynamic Burning Down Birmingham, a crowd pleaser written after a particular frustrating gig in that location. Reflecting on the material on the second album, which appears every bit as autobiographical as Razor Wire, even appearing to re-examine a number of the same issues, I enquire if the sores were healing but not completely gone at that time? “I think those are reoccurring themes in my life,’’ she explained, adding with admirable honesty,“self-destruction, self-doubt, depression, fighting for something, standing my ground, etc. I am usually only compelled to write when Im trying to write myself out of a dark place.’’

Touring these albums drew her to Europe where she has regularly performed solo. I asked Hannah just how difficult is it for an artist travelling solo or does the aloneness create the space and environment to gather thoughts for songs?

“It is almost impossible for me to write on the road’’ she replied. “I have to make an effort to carve out time to write when Im home. It is really difficult to explain to people what its like to book all your own tours, then tour manage your own tours, and spend 250 days a year alone dragging 150 pounds of merch and gear in and out of airports and trains and cars. Some days by the time I get the venue, I have plotted out a whole new career for myself. Then I play the show and decide that I want to keep going. Ha!” But you have built up a growing and loyal fan base in Europe - how important is that market to you in terms of continuing to develop your career? “It’s vitally important. Europe has been the market that has opened its arms to me without any bandwagons, or a label, or agents, or huge magazines. They allowed me to grow and organically build a fan base there and Im so grateful for that. I am currently working on expanding my touring in Central Europe as well.’’

What about comparisons between playing solo compared with performing with a band, for an artist like her who performs in both formats? No doubt it would not be affordable to tour Europe with a full band but I wondered which was her preference. “I love playing with a band because its a different energy on stage. I also love having companions on the road. But I love having total control of the shows and tours when I am alone as well. I feel like I connect with the audience on a more personal level during solo shows.’’

And her talent of winning over audiences early in the sets by essentially including them in the show by using both stage banter and encouraging them to sing a chorus here and there - does that work better in Europe than the States?

“It actually works great both places but I think initially everyone is completely intimidated by it and by the end they feel like we are friends. Some shows I can read an audience and tell that they arent going to participate or listen as well as others, but for the most part, people really enjoy it.’’

Despite Aldridges amiable and gentle stage manner I suspect that she is also a very assertive person. So,what about the talkers, the ones that insist getting near the front and spend half the show talking as loudly as possible - do you react or ignore them?  “I have stopped songs many times and told people talking that I would wait until they were done to finish, because I didnt want to interrupt them. I know the whole goal of music is to entertain people so I do take it on as my responsibility to try to captivate an audience in a way that they dont want to talk and not take myself too seriously. But, also, Im not going to let people talking ruin the show for everyone else.’’ 

Aldridges performances in recent years, even when performing the darker material, depict a relaxed, confident and reconciled individual. Is it a case of having vented all the anger and infuriation and now being in a better place?

“I think I thoroughly enjoy that time I have on stage to be allowed to be myself and say what I feel and what I want without feeling strange. Im allowed to be strange on stage. I feel very relaxed on stage, but only because I play so much. I dont get to talk about my love for vampires and ghosts on a daily basis; or say out loud that I, like so many others have thought about suicide; or say that I struggle with different topics or that I relate to the fear of getting older and so on. It is a safe place for me to talk about those things and joke about those things through music. I know in a room full of people there is at least one person that needs to know that they can relate to someone.’’

And having written so many deep, personal and dark songs is it more difficult to write fictionally?“Absolutely. Even my fictional songs I write from my point of view. I have a hard time writing if I dont feel connected to the topic.’’ 

Having also had experience in co-writing I wondered how it compared for someone that writes so personally? “Solo writing for me has to almost be like a song is just laid in my lap. Those usually just fall right out. Co-writing takes a different finesse and I love it so much on the days where I have no inspiration.’’

Aldridge is difficult to slot into one definitive music genre and not surprisingly is often lazily classified as a country singer, which could not be further from the truth. I wondered how she would describe her music (without using the termAmericana!). “That topic is one that I could write a whole article ranting about, but in short, I would rather be called anything other than lazily being called Americana. If people like my music because it’s county or rock or pop or Americana to their ears, thats absolutely ok for me, but I do not want to be on any bandwagons. I was strongly opposed to cliques in High School and Im strongly opposed to cliques in the music industry. I’m just here to play music and anyone who likes it, likes it and anyone who hates it, hates it.’’

The standard of female artists residing in Nashville presently, outside the commercial country genre, is staggering. Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, Ashley Mc Bryde and Kristina Murray, to name a few, have all recorded super albums this year. Despite this, Margo Price is the only female artist in Nashville to deservedly reach the audience she warrants. How frustrating is this for an artist like Aldridge and what does it takes to break that mould? “Promotion is a powerful thing. The further I go, the more I come to understand that almost none of the music business has to do with music. Luck, money behind you, and/or the right group of friends is what it amounts to most of the time. So, for me, I have to just keep my nose to the grindstone and try not to feel too jaded about these topics and be grateful for the things I have accomplished and the opportunities I have had.”

At the Static Roots Festival in Germany earlier this year I was most impressed that Aldridge hung around after her early showcase, watching all the other acts perform. “It’s extremely important to make sure you are current on what is going on and who is who. Also, when the situation occurs that I see an artist that just blows me away, I always feel like a student trying to learn something. Additionally, I think its extremely important to support each other. There are times I dont watch other people if I am busy or not feeling in the mood, but recently I was reminded about that because there was a specific girl that a friend met in Europe and the first thing that came out of her mouth when they said my name was that she didnt like me because she opened for me 5 years ago and that I didnt pay attention to her. I didnt even remember meeting this girl, but to her she had been mad about that situation for 5 years. I think its important to be aware that not everyone understands if youre tired or having an off day and try your best to always be standing in the front cheering each other on. And the one day that you don’t … you will have someone mad at you for years - ha!

Having just completed her live album in London, whats next on the on the writing and recording front? “I just finished that live record and beyond that I am giving myself the patience and room to not have the pressure of a third studio record. It will come when it comes. I dont have any desire to forcing out songs just for the sake of putting out a record. I would much rather write until I have songs I like and then think about recording when thats done so that I put out a great record, not just the first 12 songs I write!”

Interview by Declan Culliton


My Politic interview



Kaston Guffey is both a very talented artist and a driving force behind My Politic, a Roots band that embraces all that is great about the Americana/Country/Folk genres in contemporary music today. Growing up in Ozark, Missouri there is a strong likelihood that Kaston was influenced by the music of the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo, two bands who originated in the state. Also, the traditional Ozark culture, that includes stories and tunes passed between generations and communities, would have left a strong impression on him. 

Kaston writes the lyrics across the seven albums that My Politic has released to date and he also plays a central role in creating the song arrangements with his long-time collaborator, Nick Pankey. As the creative hub of My Politic he has some interesting views on the human condition and growing up in the USA. His music is highly recommended and the band is certainly top of my list as most likely to succeed. An undiscovered gem for many people to explore and enjoy.

Tell me about your long friendship with co-partner Nick Pankey and the origins of the band?

Nick and I started playing together when we were around 14 years old. We played in a couple high school rock bands and when I started writing songs and playing more acoustic stuff, he peeled off with me and we started focusing on making albums. We did 3 full lengths in Ozark, just the 2 of us. We moved to Boston together in 2010 and made 2 albums there in our living room and then we made the move to Nashville in 2014 and got more folks involved. Nick and I have always gelled really well together in life and in music. Like brothers. 

The first three releases were steps on the stairs; 2008, 2009, 2010. All produced by James Carter with both you and Nick. There is the strong sense of a group of friends, in a collective and producing music locally in Ozark, Missouri. Is this how you remember it?

Ozark is a small town, outside of Springfield, which is much bigger. We fell in with some great singer songwriters that were a bit older than us and we played where we could. Springfield has a really strong music community. Unfortunately, we left before we got fully involved in it but every time we go back and play, we meet more and more folks doing great things there. 

These early releases have a very bare bones, confessional sense to the lyrics. They seem to focus on topics such as growing up, moving on, new beginnings, self-doubt, loneliness, relationships, existential questions and looking for hope in tomorrow. Have you always sought to explore the human condition in questioning both the past and the future?

I think so. It is what is most interesting to me. Those early releases were just things that were pouring out. I was pretty closed off emotionally and I think I was using writing as an outlet. I was also just exploring how to write songs. I think the later stuff is a bit more polished and crafted. The subject matter isn't all that different, I’m definitely interested in the human condition and trying to understand what folks are going through and how they deal with it. Myself included. 

Is your song writing process from a personal perspective or do you prefer character songs that allow a freedom in adopting certain personas?

I like exploring both, often in the same song or collection of songs. Sometimes it all comes down to where a line I like ends up taking the song. I think a lot of them start from a personal feeling or anecdote and then that's when I can detach and start building characters, if that is the direction the story feels the most comfortable, or I can stay very personal if it's what is right for the song. 

When did you move to Boston and was this move entirely focused on building your career opportunities further?

We moved to Boston in 2010. For me the move was mostly to get away from what I knew and experience something different. We ended up making two albums in our tiny living room, taking a lot of the things we learned from Jamie Carter and doing it ourselves. I think that experience taught us a lot. 

Your fourth release, American Will, comes across as a more rounded, mature work with the fiddle of Eva Walsh a precursor for your current sound. The country influence seems more pronounced and the writing more observational of heartland America, as opposed to personal experience. Would you agree?

I have to wonder if that was caused by leaving Missouri. I was pretty nostalgic for it while we lived on Boston and I think that feeling was bleeding into the writing. I think that still happens now. We live in Nashville, which is a lot closer to home, but I still get in these writing moods where I want to explore what it was/is like back home; those different characters and experiences of growing up in Missouri. 

Seven albums in ten years has been quite an output and you still have youth on your side. Do you come from a musical family background and what were your influences growing up?

I don't think either of us come from particularly musical families. My grandma played organ at church and my sister Keshia can sing beautifully. I’m not sure about anyone else. When we started making records together, we were also singing in the same choir in high school. That was a major help musically. I was listening to a lot of Dylan records and things like that. I started collecting vinyl when I was 12 years old, so there was a lot of old records to soak up. 

Your insights and observations are very much part of the attraction in listening to My Politic. Does writing come easy to you or does the creative muse visit you on a more sporadic basis?

Thank you for saying that Paul. I feel like I am always writing in some way. I’m sporadic when it comes to sitting down and putting pen to paper, it usually happens when I have 4 or 5 songs going at once. That's when I have to start organizing. Lines and ideas are things I’m constantly looking for, because you always have to be ready for that moment when things start to line up and you feel inspired to actually write it out. The one thing that can always improve is the craft and that just takes doing it over and over and over again. 

My initial introduction to your music was through a review copy of Anchor. One of the key songs on that release is God vs Evolution and I wondered how this song idea arrived?

I wrote that song in Boston before we moved to Nashville. I think that one came out done in one sitting. We grew up in a very religious area and then moved to Boston where things were more scholarly. I liked playing with the differences there. 

The latest release is built around twelve story songs, from different perspectives. Are these characters doomed to loss or is there any hope of redemption?

I think there is. I was going through a lot when I wrote that album. I think there are pieces of my psyche in each of those stories and it was a kind of snapshot of what I was feeling in that moment.  

Since moving from Boston to Nashville have you found it easier to get a foot on that ladder to greater recognition?

Boston felt like a more transient city for people. You go to school then maybe you leave. It was a great place to write, play out and record but Nashville is just a whole other thing. It feels more permanent for us here. There are obviously more opportunities because it's kind of the centre of the song-writing / music universe. More than that though, it's really nice to be around creative folks every day and watch each other grow. It makes you want to be better and that's probably the best opportunity we have here in Nashville. 

How did you find the other members of the current band?

We met Will Cafaro, our bass player, up in Boston through a band called Tumbleweed Company. We didn't start playing with him till Nashville. Wilson Conroy was a similar story, we met him over at the Tumbleweed band house too. I heard Jen Starsinic playing her own songs and I thought they were really incredible. When I found out she played fiddle too, I really wanted her to play our stuff because I knew she would approach it from a songwriter's perspective. They are all so incredibly talented and we are lucky to play with each one of them! 

Is touring something that you currently do on a local basis only?

We have done a decent amount touring through the South, Midwest and New England. We haven’t made it over to y'alls neck of the woods yet, but hopefully soon. 

What are the constraints to bringing the band out on tour?

I just want to make sure everyone gets paid and that I’m not wasting their time. That can be difficult. Also, space… Ha, ha! We travel in Kia minivan and when you pile 5 people and all our gear in it, it becomes very close quarters. We all get along pretty good in spite of that. Also, we are really lucky to play a lot of house concerts around the country and the hosts are always so gracious. We usually end up staying at their houses and it makes it so much easier. 

Playing the AMA Festival is recognition for what you are building. What comes next?

We will inevitably make another album, hopefully soon. We would really like get out on the road more that we do. And maybe we come to Ireland? That would be a dream come true. 

Do media outlets such as You Tube bring you more admirers that you are aware of?

I think so. I certainly think YouTube is a place where people go to discover new artists. Videos are important these days.

What is the idea behind the Mad Valley Lodge?

The Mad valley lodge is a house concert series we have been doing once a month for about 5 years now. We usually have 2 artists (mostly local) play. The idea is that it is a listening room. The focus is on the artist 100%. It can get really disheartening when you play gig after gig to folks that couldn't care less that you are there. It has also been an incredible way for us to meet amazing folks in Nashville and build a community of like-minded creative people. The idea was basically to have an intimate listening room for folks that we admire to play their songs in and for the audience to get to have that up-close experience. We love putting it on. 

It has to be all about self- belief, especially based in Nashville where the competition is so fierce. What is the essential glue that makes you endure?

Writing songs and being a part of a community of creative people is what it's all about. Being around really great writers and musicians on an everyday basis just makes you want to be better. These folks become family. 

Well, there you are … Words of wisdom from a talented singer-songwriter who has a real shot at enduring success. There is an energy and enthusiasm that shines through in the performance and creative output of this artist and the music of My Politic is well worth investigating.

Interview by Paul McGee