Home to the major studios, headquarters of most record labels, and nearly all supporting industries, Los Angeles rightfully earned its reputation as the entertainment capital of the world.
However, the glitz and glamour — regardless of realities — seem antithetical to country music’s near-religious dedication to the perception of authenticity. And this is especially true of those just outside the mainstream.
The carefully cultivated image of these artists almost requires them to decry the vapidity of Hollywood — a trope utilized even by musicians living in Los Angeles.
Yet so many alt-country, free-thinking, outlaw artists record in this City of Sun and Palms. Margo Price, Turnpike Troubadours, and Kelsey Waldon, among others, have recently shunned Nashville, home to its eponymous sound, and the Hills of Texas, the spiritual birthplace of the Outlaw Movement, to develop a unique country sound — and story — in Los Angeles.
The most obvious reason for these musicians to come to Los Angeles is access to talent. Millions flock to the city chasing the dream of stardom, resulting in a glut of incredibly talented artists and performers. Yet there is something more.
Ted Russell Kamp, a fixture of the Los Angeles alt-country scene for two decades, said that while the talent is “unreal” in the city, country music produced in Los Angeles benefits even more from a lack of expectations.
“The music industry is so huge in LA, but it’s not so roots music or singer-songwriter oriented,” said the bass player prior to a show at the Desert Five Spot, a swanky rooftop bar and new country music venue in the heart of Hollywood. “So the people who are doing that have the freedom to do what we want to do.”
“I’ve had a lot of friends in Nashville, who so want to fit in and be successful that end up working with people who guide them toward sounding like other people,” he continued. “And I feel like LA is a place where eclecticism is valued. If you learn the part and add some spice that is your own, people like it.”
“I’ve played in other towns where they want you to play just like the record, and recreate something that’s already been created, rather than make something new.”
And this unfortunately revolutionary idea to infuse creativity into a creative pursuit, was what set the stage for his nearly 20-year relationship with Shooter Jennings.
Kamp moved to Seattle after college, yet after a few years in the grunge rock capital, he felt it was time to branch out. Late one night after a Salt Lake City gig, he put on “Austin City Limits” in the background of his motel room. The show featured Whiskeytown and The Old 97s, and it was like a light bulb went off, he explained.
“It was then I knew that was the kind of music I wanted to make, and I knew I had to leave Seattle to make it,” he said.
So he packed up and moved down south. After months of playing dive bars and small clubs, two separate friends gave his number to Jennings, who needed a bass player for his band.
Over the next several years, Kamp played in Jennings’ band, serving as the group’s de facto music director. As they toured and wrote music together, Kamp felt he found his musical home. During this time, Jenning’s “Putting the O Back in County” dropped — balancing themes and sounds foundational to the development of alt-country and Americana.
The Shooter Effect
This genre-defying and defining record cemented Jennings — and his band — as keepers of a sound.
And recording artists took notice. Dozens of country music records — either to launch or redefine careers — were produced by Jennings with the support of his band in Los Angeles studios.
Tanya Tucker’s “While I’m Living,” produced by Brandi Carlile and Jennings, earned four Grammy nominations and two statues, two Americana Award nods and was up for the CMT music video of the year. While she had been nominated for 10 Grammys between 1973 and 1994, this 2019 album resulted in her first two wins.
The album held nothing back — highlighting Tucker’s incredible talent and range with a raw power that might have been polished out of her earlier works. It was a departure without ignoring Tucker’s past.
But it was not without reservations, explained Tucker.
“I just didn’t feel [working with Carlile and Jennings was] what I should do,” she told Variety in 2019. “And I tell you, I’m usually right, but I have never been so wrong in my life.”
In recent years, there is perhaps no better example of an album that tosses aside expectations than Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ “The Light Saw Me.” While Boland had worked with Jennings in 2013 on “Dark & Dirty Mile,” the alien abduction concept album required an expert hand to navigate the super fine line between genius and kitsch.
Together, Jennings, Boland and his Stragglers created a sonically and thematically divergent piece of pop-culture-influenced country music. While it’s possible the album could have been recorded and produced elsewhere, the freedom Los Angeles provides and the deft touch Jennings delivers made coming west the logical choice for such a shift in content and style for a band known for nostalgic songs and themes.
Kelsey Waldon, a protege of John Prine and member of his label, Oh Boy Records, left Nashville to record her album “No Regular Dog” at Dave’s Room Studio in
North Hollywood with Jennings. While similar in themes and approach to her earlier work, the sound on this album delivers a much deeper feel while never betraying the essence of her artistry.
When Waldon announced her album launch on BandCamp, she specifically noted that she was “so excited…that [her] new record [was] produced by Shooter Jennings.”
Hollywood’s Hit Machine vs. Perception
“There is a long-standing history of this happening, and Nashville wouldn’t highlight that,” said Manda Mosher, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Blackbird Record Label, which focuses on California and Western Americana and country artists. She explained that while Nashville and Austin have robust studio systems, people still come to LA, because, among other locations, “people want to record at Capitol.”
Capitol Records, the iconic record-shaped building that dominates the Hollywood skyline, hosted seminal country music recording sessions dating back to the early 1940s. Tex Ritter, The Louvin Brothers and Faron Young in the early years to the Bakersfield Sound heroes, including Buck Owens, Don Rich, Red Simpson and Merle Haggard, and modern-day radio stalwarts like Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Garth Brooks, all pressed albums in those studios. Jessi Colter recorded “I’m Not Lisa” and Bobby Gentry put down tracks for “Ode to Billie Joe” at 1750 Vine Street.
Yet even with some of the best-selling country records of all time produced in Southern California, the need to always appear authentic makes turning to Hollywood to create a country album complicated.
“Saying you’re a Nashville recording artist gives you a clear idea of what you will get in terms of general style and instrumentation,” said Eric Craig, the other co-owner of Blackbird and Mosher’s husband. And while there are a few other locations with such immediate recognition, such as Austin, Dallas or the hills of Kentucky, the same cannot be said of California.
“California country is not immediately recognizable. You hear more in it,” he suggested, noting that the music has diversified inputs and lacks a defined sound.
Eric Corne, president of Forty Below Records and Los Angeles-based, Grammy-nominated producer and engineer who has worked with Glen Campbell and Lucinda Williams as well as emergent stars like Sam Morrow and Jaime Wyatt, puts a finer point on it. “California is where individuals go to assert their individuality. Nashville is where you go to conform.”
“There is a place for slick country records,” added Mosher, taking time to show respect for the greats known for making incredible Nashville country records. “But we have more happening here, and the producers working out here are more varied in their influences.”
The Los Angeles country music scene has diversified source material from the Bakersfield revolt of the 40s and 50s, the crunchy Laurel Canyon sounds of the late 60s and 70s and the Palomino Club regulars across that entire period, she added.
Craig agreed, highlighting that country-rock-outlaw musician, author and cannabis entrepreneur Margo Price decamped from her Tennessee home to record what she described as a “psychedelic, out-there and totally unique” record in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon with producer Jonathan Wilson.
“I believe [Wilson] is reviving Topanga Canyon and making a lot of records that echo that feeling, that vibe,” she explained. “Not so squished down and manufactured sounding, like a lot of slick records that get made it Nashville, trying to fit in some mold.”
“I’ve always been drawn to the West Coast,” Price said in an interview between major festival dates. “There has always been this romanticism for me, being from the Midwest, about going to California to follow your dreams. Like the proverbial search for gold.”
“In California, we don’t see genre boundaries and we aren’t serving country radio,” said Corne, who worked as Dusty Wakeman’s engineer at Mad Dog Studios in Los Angeles. (Wakeman served in Buck Owens’ band, engineered several Dwight Yoakam albums and co-produced Lucinda Williams’ first two albums.) “A hallmark of California country is that we blend these genres, and it distinguishes the LA sound.”
And that may be key to the creative flexibility Kamp cites as critical to the depth and range of the country music created in Los Angeles.
“The original guys in Nashville created too many roles,” Kamp noted and that the system in Music City expects you to stay in your lane. “When people met me as Shooter’s bass player, they expected me to be a bad songwriter. When they met me as a songwriter, they expected me to be a poor player. As a touring musician, it was assumed I couldn’t do session work.”
The rigidity of the Nashville machine, which allows it to deliver high-quality, yet often predictable music, fosters and delivers a sound that only accepts new material after proven successful. That system and its assurance of a certain level of quality is not present within Los Angeles, said Kamp.
“Nashville is a music business town in the Deep South. It is culturally conservative and often slow to change. LA is a music industry town born in the Wild West, with far fewer rules. The free-thinking of California is a big part of what we’re talking about.”