Country music has the rare distinction of being perhaps the only style of popular music in which classic recordings not only succeed in spite of terrible cover art, but are actually enhanced by it. The great country songbook of the 20th Century is, notoriously, attended by a litany of weird, wonderful and questionable record sleeves. Among the most celebrated (or derided, depending on your perspective) is the jacket of the Louvin Brothers’ seminal country-Gospel masterpiece Satan is Real (1959):
This is an unforgettable example of the kind of magic that can happen when a recording artist takes it upon him/herself to organise a cover-shoot. Designed by Ira Louvin, the cover features the brothers posing, arms outstretched in spiritually-charged entreaty, in front of a 12-foot-tall plywood Satan at the bottom of an old quarry littered with burning tyres (because a 13-foot Satan would just be excessive). It’s a timeless album with all-time best artwork.
Even among my own admittedly impoverished collection of LPs, there are some fantastically ill-considered cover designs. The sleeve of Merle Haggard’s brilliant seventh studio album Mama Tried (1968) is arguably less notable for its iconic blue-collar depiction of Haggard – sporting the cap and get-up of a railway engineer – than it is for the inset image, which features his eponymous Mama kneading her brow in exasperation at her wayward son’s criminal exploits:
Seated, as she is, in a rocking chair, and sporting sensible knitwear, short grey hair, spectacles, and a lapful of knitting, this is the archetypal Mama.
Then there are multiple covers lifted from the back-catalogue of wildman Porter Wagoner, including those that depict Wagoner in the guise of his destitute alter ego, Skid Row Joe – see Confessions of Broken Man (1966) and Skid Row Joe: Down in the Alley (1970). While Convict Capital has previously reflected on the phenomenal Bottom of the Bottle (1968), the album’s cover always bears a re-airing. For readers unfamiliar with the album: if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like for Porter Wagoner to hold court with the miniature form of his alcoholic doppelgänger trapped in a wine bottle like a tipsy genie, it looks something like this:
Not to forget the unforgiving damnation-in-retrospect that is fashion. For every timeless exemplar of mid-century country styling – think the Flying Burrito Brothers’ iconic Nudie suits on their Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) sleeve – there’s a string-band kitted out in skivvies and coveralls, matching sweater vests, or beehive hairdos paired with white pleather boots. It’s a glorious window on a magnificent and all-too-recent era. There’s never been a better time to go and rummage through the $1 bin at your local secondhand record store.
At a distant remove from the golden age of vinyl LP cover design is the Sydney live music scene of 2017. Kicking off another colossal festival season, Dashville Skyline returns to the picturesque surrounds of Belford in the Hunter Valley from 29 September to 1 October. This year’s event features a typically expansive lineup, including Cash Savage & The Last Drinks, William Crighton, Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes, the Roamin’ Jasmine (US), Immigrant Union, Mel Parsons (NZ), Matt Walker, Paddy McHugh, and many, many more.
There’s a new arrival on the live alt. country scene, with the Staves Brewery in Glebe opening its band-room back in June. Hosting a revolving door of local talent curated by Sydney institution Mark Lucas, the venue has live music on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The brewery hosts Widow’s Walk on 26 August, Los Monaros on 2 September, and Fallon Cush on 9 September.
Also in the Inner West, the Davidson Brothers are at Petersham Bowling Club on 20 August, while further west, Shane Nicholson is at Rooty Hill RSL on 1 September, before Russell Morris pays the club a visit on 8 September.
Django Bar in Marrickville has country rockers STARS on 19 August, with support from Bondi Cigars’ Shane Pacey, before the venue hosts Lyn Bowtell on 21 September, and Fiona Boyes on 29 September. Upstairs, Camelot Lounge has Russell Morris on 10 September, the Turner Brown Band (US/Australia) featuring Dom Turner and Nikki D Brown on 5 October, and Lloyd Spiegel on 27 October.
The Sydney Guitar Festival 2017 sees Jeff Lang, Dom Turner and Fiona Boyes appear at the Factory Theatre on 26 August, before Declan O’Rourke (Ireland) appears at the venue on 5 October.
Harbourside, the Basement hosts Tami Neilson (NZ) on 20 August, the Spin Drifters on 31 August, 22 September and 2 November, and The Last Waltz Revival show on 9 September.
In Newtown, Leadbelly has onetime Jayhawks vocalist-guitarist Mark Olson on 10 September, James Bennett on 17 September, Timothy Bowen on 21 September, Kaurna Cronin on 26 October, and Chris Jagger on 10 November.
Also in Newtown, Adam Young & The Down Main launch new single ‘Wolfe Island Blues’ at the Botany View Hotel on 19 August, while Newcastle’s Melody Moko takes her The Wreckage album launch tour to Marrickville Bowling Club on 22 October
Mark Olson is also at Cronulla’s Brass Monkey on 14 September, as are the Feral Swing Katz on 23 September, Lyn Bowtell on 29 September, and the Turner Brown Band on October 12.
The Last Waltz Revival show is at Lizotte’s Newcastle on 8 September, James Bennett on 13 September, Lyn Bowtell on 16 September, Carpenter Caswell, Aleyce Simmonds and the Weeping Willows on 24 September, The Bushwackers on 22 October, Sara Storer on 29 October, and Lyn Bowtell’s Student Showcase on 1 November.
Local pickers the Willing Ponies have been hosting regular country and bluegrass evenings at the George Hotel in Waterloo of late – keep an eye on Facebook for upcoming fixtures.
And for those gig-goers who relish a little privileged insight into the business of songwriting, Wentworth Leagues Club continues to host free Sunday Songwriters in the Round sessions, hosted by Amber Lawrence and Luke O’Shea. Recent artists featured have included Katie Brianna, Steve Passfield, Kaylen’s Rain, and Simply Bushed.
As always, keep an eye on the bill at Newtown’s Union Hotel and Botany View Hotel, Redfern’s the Bearded Tit, Best Music Warehouse in Glebe, and Marrickville’s LazyBones Lounge, Gasoline Pony, Marrickville Bowlo, and the Vic on the Park for all your country, roots and alt. country needs.
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