In the fall of 2010, thirteen years to the day after launching his career at Stubb's Barbecue in Lubbock, Texas, Wade Bowen started recording this self-titled album, his first for a major country label. Those years had seen Bowen rise from collegiate greenhorn to the top of the Texas music and Red Dirt circuit. His colleagues and friends the Randy Rogers Band, Pat Green, Jack Ingram, Eli Young Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed and others had already made the major label leap, helping to take a vibrant regional sound to the rest of America. Now it's Wade Bowen's turn to bring some Red Dirt and independent spirit to country music at large.

This isn't a debut, more like a fresh start on a bigger stage. Working with Justin Niebank, a master mixing engineer and Vince Gill's producer of recent years, Bowen cut new versions of four of his most popular songs along with seven new tunes that reflect his evolving vision as a songwriter. Longtime fans (and there are quite a few of them) will hear the Bowen they've known and the next steps on his journey. They'll get better acquainted with the ballad singer who doesn't often get a chance to show himself in honky tonks. Newcomers will hear a head-turning country artist with range, road-tested hits and one of the best male voices in the business.

That voice truly jumps out of these 11 tracks. Wade's baritone is dense and concentrated, with traces of whisky and smoke and an autumnal warmth. Bowen takes command of his songs, cutting over the top of Niebank's sculpted guitar-scapes. The sound is one hundred percent country, rife with pedal steel and vivid emotion, but it's also music could easily find a home with fans of Bowen's non-country idols - folks like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. Take a few passes through this project and you'll hearing a singer's singer and a focused songwriter who's adding layers to his music all the time.

"All this work and the care we've taken with this album just falls in the category of trying to get better," says Bowen. "When it comes to my intent as a musician, I've not changed anything since day one. I've only tried to mature and tried to get better, and I think this record is representative of that." On a live circuit where the overwhelming mandate is to stir up a party, Bowen has aimed to leave folks with a memory. As a writer, even one from a state with some tall literary traditions, he's not trying to earn a PhD in poetry; he's trying to communicate. "My style," he says, "is more to try to evoke an emotion. I'm more about trying to leave a mark on people."

Growing up in Waco, Bowen's exposure to the music of Texas was limited to whatever made it on FM country radio. George Strait was king. Guy Clark was a name he'd not have recognized before getting to college. There, in Lubbock, he discovered the iceberg below the surface, starting with Robert Earl Keen. "He was a big changing point in my life," says Wade. "I realized by listening to him that there was way more out there than I ever knew. So I started getting into Guy Clark and other great Texas music. But I was obsessed with Robert Earl. When we started the band we were sort of a Robert Earl cover band."

That band was called West 84, and they found that with their large posse of friends who'd always show up for a good time, it was easy to land gigs. Bowen meanwhile began to channel a life-long love of writing into songs, and when college ended he made two major decisions. He took on the role of solo artist under his own name, and he moved to Austin. By then, about 2001, fellow Waco native Pat Green had busted out to national prominence and the Texas music phenomenon was the buzz of Nashville. It was part of Wade Bowen's inspiration to charge ahead.

Try Not To Listen is the album Wade regards as his true debut, the project that kicked off a life and living made of 200-plus nights a year on the road and patient grassroots fan development. Then with Lost Hotel in 2006, things really began to click. The opening track "God Bless This Town" reached No. 1 on the bellwether Texas Music Chart, and over the next six years, he released six more chart-toppers and three additional top fives. He achieved another landmark when he was invited to add his name to the roster of great artists who've made a Live At Billy Bob's CD/DVD combo at the iconic club in Fort Worth. With a decade that good, it was inevitable that Music Row would become interested.

The origins of Bowen's new record deal can be traced to his music publisher, Sea Gayle Music. It's where Brad Paisley, Radney Foster, Jerrod Niemann, Chris Stapleton and other do their songwriting, and in 2010, it was the first indie company to be named ASCAP Country Publisher of the Year since 1982. Sea Gayle has a track record of investing in artists and helping them reach their potential, and that's how they've worked with Bowen, ultimately backing this album and introducing its independently made sound to Sony Music. Step one in that process was to find a producer who could preserve Wade's vision yet find the sweet spot that would help his music have its best chance at country radio. "Of all the producers we talked to, Justin Niebank was the only one who said 'I need to come down and see you live,'" says Bowen. "Well after 13 years of doing this I'd hope someone would want to see what we do, why we have fans. He totally got it and based the whole sound of this record around that."

That live immediacy certainly throbs on "Saturday Night," which tracks the internal monologue of a lonesome hombre sitting on his stool, nursing his drink and thinking about "that sad goodbye." As the album's first single, its chiming descending guitar riff will be the first thing many audiences will hear from Wade, his calling card. Also likely to grab listeners early is "Patch Of Bad Weather," a brisk, rocking take-down of a treacherous lover. It paints dramatic pictures of a stormy Texas landscape and it kicks like a gun.

Bowen has also taken advantage of his recent songwriting sessions and the comfortable studio environment fostered by Niebank to develop his love of ballad singing and the emotional side of country music. "All That's Left" brings strings into the mix, and it works. Bowen sounds at home. In "Say Anything," a guy can't think of a thing to say to a girl he's just met except gush on about the one he let get away, so he shuts up and listens. Its chorus will surely make some leading male country singers wish they'd been given a shot at the song. "I love those songs like that. Sad ballads," says Bowen with an apologetic shrug. "That's where my passion is. 'Say Anything' is one of my favorite tracks on the record."

Bowen was extremely pleased that the offer of a deal from Sony's BNA Records included an invitation to re-work his best material. "It was a huge opportunity to make these four songs a little better," he says. "We've played them lives for a long time, and we learned from that. We changed some tempos and tried to animate them a little bit. We created more dynamics and more signature hooks. That's stuff Justin has taught me as a producer."

Among these, "God Bless This Town" is probably the closest Bowen has so far to a greatest hit. A Texas No. 1 in 2006 and a popular music video with tons of CMT and GAC play, it's got stories layered in its stories and its characters feel familiar and alive. The narrator is torn between cynicism and attachment, and the song is all the more affecting because of it. The new version has a clean, coiled energy that ought to propel it into the hearts of a new wave of fans. Also re-worked is the smoldering "Trouble" and a breezy song written by Paul Thorn called "Mood Ring" that uses a dime-store novelty as a device to get the narrator to reveal his conflicted feelings.

Now one last note, because Bowen knows it's going to be interesting to roll out a "Nashville" album to his fans. A contingent of them have preemptively made it known that they live in mortal fear of Bowen being eaten by the Music Row machine. Yes, Wade did record this project in Nashville, with Nashville session players. But study those previous albums, and you'll see that's exactly where and how he's made them all. Bowen's been making regular writing trips for years as well, working with an expanding circle of masters and taking advantage of the town's expertise and experience. Wade will tell anyone who has a low opinion of Music City that for him, it's the home of Guy Clark and Todd Snider and Rodney Crowell, of the greatest guitarists on Earth, the finest studios and producers.

And of course Nashville was the origin of those radio dreams instilled when Wade was growing up in Texas and hearing country legends on his FM radio. The calling he felt was toward authentic music that reaches people, and that's not unique to Austin, Lubbock, Waco or Nashville for that matter. It lives in the heart and the work of the artist, and those who've believed in Wade Bowen all along will find in this album and the many albums and tours to follow, plenty more reasons to keep the faith.

Girls, Guns, and Glory

Love and Protest: two concepts that seldom go hand in hand. Until you think about it a while.

That’s what singer, guitarist and songwriter Ward Hayden did as he began mapping out plans for Girls Guns & Glory’s next album, which happens to be called Love and Protest.

“That title sums up this album and it sums me up very well too,” he says. “We’ve done 10 years of touring, living, learning and growing, maturing and developing a broader world view, a view outside of the small town where I grew up.”

That decade began with Hayden and several like-minded musicians getting together. Their love for early rock ’n’ roll, true country, raw blues and pretty much any kind of authentic American music branded them quickly as anomalous — and electrifying. Since that time they’ve barnstormed far beyond their Boston hometown, playing honky-tonks, beer joints and more recently concert venues throughout the U.S. They’ve amassed a loyal legion of fans along the way. The media have noticed too, including Rolling Stone, which heralds them as a “modern-day Buddy Holly plus Dwight Yoakam divided by the Mavericks.”

Now, in this milestone year, with Girls Guns & Glory recording for the first time on its own label, the group has channeled all it’s experienced into its most personal and, paradoxically, hardest-rocking release to date.

“Love and Protest is the name of the album because its songs explore the emotion of love,” Hayden explains. “And when love is faced with opposition, it’s the protest of that emotion. It’s alpha and omega — love and protest. There’s a lot of ground to cover between those two extremes.”

They begin with the album’s first single and opening track. “Rock ’n’ Roll.” With bassist Paul Dilley and drummer Josh Kiggans laying down a no-nonsense, backbeat-driven groove, lead vocalist and guitarist Hayden sings, “I’m a hunter, a collector of things. I keep holding onto bad memories.” And yet, when the chorus hits, he proclaims that he’s “ready to rock ’n’ roll.”

Like much of Hayden’s work, these lyrics run deeper than they seem at first listen, with a sub current of heartbreak and obsession. “I don’t just collect physical trinkets,” Hayden notes. “This song is more about experiences and memories, the things you can’t see but they stay with you in your head and your heart.”

Similar spirits haunt the bitterly self-destructive “Wine Went Bad,” the loneliness of “Reno, Nevada” (“I might as well be a world away”), the exquisitely pure honky-tonk lament “Empty Bottles,” the painful introspection of “Memories Don’t Die” and “Stare at the Darkness,” and “Diamondillium,” a dystopian meditation shaded by noir guitar and incongruously inspired by an episode of Futurama — really, everything on the album, including its one cover, a resurrection of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito No. 1.”

“The growth and maturity of Girls Guns & Glory as a band is what led us to take on this song,” Hayden says. “Lyrically, I think it’s a song that would make Hank Williams proud. Love was, and is, there in the person telling the story, but his love interest has taken the things she’s learned from their relationship and moved on to someone else. The storyteller is left to pine over it. It’s love and protest exemplified.”

To complement the immediacy of Hayden’s words, Girls Guns & Glory elected to cut Love and Protest entirely in analog, with Drew Townson, an acknowledged master of that format, recruited to produce with the band.

“There’s a nostalgia to working with analog,” Hayden says. “There are also limitations — no editing, making sure you don’t run out of tape. But those limitations force you to let things go, let things happen. The anxiety begets beauty and makes the band do its best every take, firing on all cylinders and working together as a cohesive unit.

“It’s as stripped-down as we’ve ever been. Even going into it, I didn’t imagine it would turn out as pure as it did.”

Going back to analog parallels the band’s return to its earliest days as an independent act, in control of its career. “This is the first album in eight years where we did everything ourselves,” Hayden says. “It’s the first album we’ve co-produced. We don’t worry about appeasing a label anymore. We’re creating music only for ourselves and our fans.”

To illustrate, he points to one track, “Man Wasn’t Made,” an affirmation that “man wasn’t made to just lie down and die,” set to a rollicking rockabilly beat and ignited by sparks of steel guitar. “When we were working with a label, they kept telling me that protest songs don’t sell so they didn’t want to put this kind of cut on a record. Well,” he says, smiling, “now we can sneak in a couple of actual protest songs, in a not-so-sly way.”

“With this record, we feel almost like a brand new band,” he continues. “We take things in a different direction. A lot of that is because a shift has occurred on our tours. We’re getting out of the bars and playing more in theaters and listening rooms. Instead of just trying to keep people on the dance floor for three hours, we’re crafting songs for people who really like to listen. That’s allowed us to dig deeper lyrically, to make more mature music with a higher level of musicianship. We’re making the music we want to make. We’re not limiting it to any genre in particular. We’re willing to do whatever feels right.”

“You could say,” Hayden concludes, “we’re a bigger part of the music itself than we’ve ever been.”

Nothing could be better news for those who have loved Girls Guns & Glory. Nothing can give more hope to all still waiting for their faith in real, honest-to-God American music to be restored

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Wade Bowen: Texas Country

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