25 miles west of Nashville sits Kingston Springs, a tiny town born in the 1830s around mineral springs that bubbled up from the Harpeth River Valley. Like a lot of rural Southern towns, not a lot has changed, but for a brief moment in the early 1970s, Kingston Springs found itself at the center of the country music world. A wild songwriter named Vince Matthews moved there in the late ’60s with his wife Melva, and the pair dragged the conservative town into the outlaw zeitgeist by hosting drug-fueled, long-haired parties. But the Springs community grew to accept them. Despite his rebellious spirit, Matthews’ natural charm and affinity for country music helped bridge the cultural gap.
Soon Nashville’s insurgency came calling. Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, and others did for Kingston Springs what Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Jeff Walker would soon do for Luckenbach. Fellow raconteur Jim Casey also linked up with Matthews, and the pair started an ambitious project: a country opera about Kingston Springs. As Nashville went big, Matthews and Casey went small, focusing on the interesting characters in their own town. At the same time, they envisioned not just an album but a film and elaborate live productions around the country.
The dream fell apart. Recorded in 1972, The Kingston Springs Suite sat on a shelf rather than turntables or the Billboard charts. Matthews and Casey consoled themselves with fleeting flickers of fame: there was a nervous performance by Matthews on The Johnny Cash Show; and Cash, Jennings, and–most recently–Father John Misty all covered Suite songs over the years. Delmore Recordings has rescued the album from oblivion with a recent reissue, featuring personal photographs and extensive liner notes.
Listening to the Suite more than forty years later, it’s amazing how of the time it sounds–the twang is cut with hazy, laid-back grooves that personify the outlaw country movement–while simultaneously sounding ahead of its time. Matthews and Casey mix in interviews with Kingston Springs citizens, making for an album that’s as important as a historic American document as it is as a work of art. Even with the grinning country harmonies, there’s a tinge of sadness as the record unspools. As Matthews wrote simply in Country Music magazine in 1975, “Anyway, the era passed. We moved out of our house. Melva and I separated. The factory moved in.”
But Matthews and Casey kept Kingston Springs from dying on the cultural vine. On “Bessie That’s A Lie,” they call foul on ambivalence. Almost a half-century has passed through Kingston Springs since then, but that world is born again anytime you hit play.
Photo by Chad Kamenshine
Like a lot of musicians, Ellen Kempner started out writing songs in her bedroom, aiming barbs at her parents. That teen angst paid off: by the time she got to college, Kempner was an accomplished songwriter with her own idiosyncratic voice. With her band Palehound, she captures the insanity of young adulthood better than most, but there’s still a fun, I-came-up-with-this-in-my-bedroom vibe.
Kempner originally intended Palehound as a revolving cast for her own solo recordings, but the quartet has developed into a deeply-bonded group. On August 14, Palehound releases its debut album Dry Food, buoyed by the knockout leadoff track “Molly.” A twisting, surf-rock riff propels the song, punctuated by Kempner’s sharp guitar and laconic voice. Download the song below.
A few years ago, Taylor Baker won our Stage To Studio feature on the strength of her budding solo career. The Austinite appeared in our Studio 1A with a backing band that included guitarist/trumpeter Drew Walker, and soon Baker dropped the solo moniker. She teamed up with Walker as Taylor & The Wild Now, putting out a self-titled EP in 2014. The EP fleshed out Baker’s folk roots, but the band is back with a new single and something of a new sound. “Salt” dances around rippling guitar lines and a stuttering beat. Download the song below and catch the band at Stubb’s inside stage on July 9th.
Sahara Smith debuted in 2010 with Myth Of The Heart, a T-Bone Burnett-helmed record that earned the young singer-songwriter three Austin Music Awards. Even with all the recognition, she opted for a band for her second effort, teaming up with Okkervil River’s Lauren Gurgiolo and Michael St. Clair and snagging Brian Beattie (Shearwater, Okkervil River) as a producer. Smith dubbed the group Girl Pilot, taking the name from a 1940s comic book that she discovered as a teenager.
With an album on the horizon, Girl Pilot plays tonight at the ABGB, and we’ve got an exclusive song as a preview of Smith’s new sound. “Place Of Peace” features a duet with fellow Austinite Bill Callahan, and you can download it below.
Jason Isbell makes heavy music that can be comforting. His tales of down-on-their luck characters are universal while still retaining his distinct vision. Isbell left a big mark in 2013 with Southeastern, chronicling his sobriety with openness and personality. It was a hard-fought victory, coming after years of standing in the shadow of his former band, the Drive-By Truckers.
There’s less of an overarching theme on Something More Than Free, out July 17. Instead, Isbell offers up complex character sketches with his simple phrasing. On “24 Frames,” the cinematic metaphor proves apt as he takes snapshots of a life unraveled. “You thought God was an architect/ Now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb/ Ready to blow,” he sings, a small realization with big consequences. Download a Studio 1A version of the song below.