Here at Paste Music, we spend each day sorting through new albums to review, interviewing musicians, making compelling lists, and telling our readers about the songs they need to hear on any given day. But our first love has always been live music—the magic that happens when great artists create something spontaneous out of thin air and move people with it. That’s why, together with our sister sites Concert Vault, Wolfgangs and Daytrotter, we’ve spent so much time and effort acquiring and digitizing the world’s largest archive of live recordings—tens of thousands of concerts and hundreds of thousands of songs going back more than 50 years, including the archives of legendary promoter Bill Graham, the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals, the old King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show, and our ongoing daily recording projects at Paste Studio in New York and Daytrotter Studios in Davenport, Iowa.
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The entire vault, with exclusive audio and video recordings stretching from 1959 all the way to 2017, is available for free streaming here at Paste.com, and our mission is to make sure our music-loving readers explore every corner of it. We do it every day with peeks at exclusive live recordings by, say, Bruce Springsteen in 1978, or U2 in 1981, or A Tribe Called Quest in 1998. But there’s so much more to watch and hear! So this week, we’re taking a genre-by-genre deep dive into the archive and pulling out some of our most precious gems for your enjoyment.
Recently, we’ve explored our blues, jazz and hip-hop collections. Today we’re turning to country music, another tentpole of American culture that, much like the nation itself, traces its roots back to foreign lands and communities of immigrants that long predate the U.S.
As we did with our blues, jazz and hip-hop collections, let’s start at the beginning with the First Lady of country music, Maybelle Carter. Born near Nickelsville, Va., on May 10, 1909, Maybelle married Ezra J. Carter in 1926 and launched a musical partnership with his brother, A.P. Carter, that would set the course for the next century of country music. The original Carter Family trio, including A.P.’s wife Sara Carter, transformed dozens of traditional folk songs into staples of American popular music between the World Wars, with Maybelle pioneering the “Carter Scratch” style of guitar that still dominates country music. Here’s “Mother Maybelle” singing her signature song, “Wildwood Flower,” at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in 1963.
On Dec. 15, 1983, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe stopped in New York for a show at the Bottom Line, where he treated the Yankees to a set of his greatest hits—which, to a large degree, are country music’s greatest hits. In fact, the term “bluegrass” was actually coined for Monroe’s band, the Bluegrass Boys, so named for the “blue” grass in the lawns and fields of their Kentucky home. With a 50-year career already under his belt, Monroe toured heavily in the mid-1980s, and his career suddenly soared again as country-music purists came out to support a living legend who was still on the road. Here he is playing his best-known song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” (And while we’re at it, here’s Tom Petty, George Jones and Loretta Lynn also doing it.)
About 1,000 miles southwest of Monroe’s Kentucky, a generation of Texas outlaws harnessed country’s rougher stories and sounds in the 1970s and ‘80s, restoring the danger and desperation to the music. The sound was a reaction to the slicker productions dominating the country capital of Nashville at the time, where string sections were rapidly replacing pedal steels. Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle were just a handful of the brightest lone stars to come shooting out of Texas over a two-decade stretch, and we have them all here. Here’s the outlaw of all outlaws, Waylon Jennings, singing about Texas in Texas:
Daytrotter Studios in Davenport, Iowa, has hosted many a country star in its decade of recording, including aforementioned legends Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark. But perhaps no Daytrotter country session has been more meaningful than the one delivered by late Glen Campbell, who visited the studio in 2011 just as his Alzheimer’s Disease was overtaking him. One of the greatest guitarists in the history of any genre, Campbell struggled to remember names and places during his four-song session, but when it came to performing his timeless hits, he couldn’t have been sharper. Indeed, as he weaved his way through the complex lyrics to “Gentle on My Mind,” his past, present and future all seemed to drift into a single moment of transcendence: “It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving when I walk along some railroad track and find / That you’re moving on the back roads by the rivers of my memory and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.”
Paste Studio has also hosted some of country music’s most celebrated contemporary artists, from Lady Antebellum to the Josh Abbot Band. But our favorite recent session in New York actually belonged to a comedian. Steve Martin has been playing the banjo his entire life—from before he started as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, before he became his generation’s brightest stand-up comic, before he started writing and acting in movies, before he penned his first novel or play. It’s always been the banjo. Last month, Martin and his sometime backing band, Steep Canyon Rangers, released their second record together, The Long-Awaited Album, an LP brimming with masterful bluegrass instrumentation and Martin’s unique lyrical sensibility. A week later, Martin and the Rangers visited Paste Studio in New York for an exclusive three-song performance.
Stay tuned for another dive into the Vault with a tour through our voluminous collection of rock ‘n’ roll recordings. Enjoy!