Event planners for Operation Shoestring's holiday benefit have changed the format this year to include only three artists rather than the usual 13. But with Buffalo Nickel, Will Kimbrough, and headliner Rodney Crowell & The Outsiders, this is not a scaled-down version, but a new direction for the fourth annual "Cool Yule for Kids" concert at Hal & Mal's Nov. 30.
Having only three acts, including two nationally known performers, is bringing the event to a new level. "We were looking for a manageable way to have fun for a great cause. We're really excited about what it can bring to the benefit," explains Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring.
Operation Shoestring has had a long history of progressive programs for children and parents in Jackson, and artists Rodney Crowell and Will Kimbrough's music shares their common-sense approach. Both artists have recently released albums filled with alt-country/folk rock sounds and reflective lyrics, rare in current pop-consumer culture. Langford confirms that "their music fell in line" with the message of Operation Shoestring.
Rodney Crowell's latest album, "The Outsider," is a spiritual and songwriting journey. For Crowell, the U.S. has taken a turn in an unfavorable direction. Crowell has spent the last few years in Europe, gaining a different perspective on what's been going on at home.
"The Outsider, from my point of view, is God," said Crowell. "Both sides claim to know what's right and what's wrong. God really knows the answer to that. Beware of those who say they know for sure."
The title track is filled with these thoughts: "The outsider is watching your back / The outsider cuts you some slack / The outsider just a little off keel / The outsider is something you feel."
Though he has been associated with the Music Row Democrats, Crowell identifies himself as an independent. "I think both sides need to get their act together," he says.
His anger at white-collar criminals is expressed in "The Obscenity Prayer." Layered with background singers and an up-tempo rock gospel beat, Crowell sings about the new American greed: "Give to me my charm and wit / keep my body young and fit / Give to me my haute couture / give the word a cancer cure / Serve my breakfast al fresco / let the wine and liquor flow / I can search for truth some other time / But right now I just want to get what's mine."
These themes continue throughout the album on tracks such as "Don't Get Me Started" and "Ignorance is the Enemy." Will Kimbrough is a featured guitarist throughout the album, and Emmylou Harris, whom Crowell has been working with since the '70s, also makes a guest appearance. Kimbrough, a native of Alabama and guitarist for Crowell, will also play at Thursday's benefit.
Kimbrough's latest album, "Americanitus," contains the same themes and a similar style of music, but his songwriting and guitar-mastery clearly define him as his own artist. He's been performing for 30 years, and the musician is no stranger to Jackson or Hal & Mal's.
This is the first time he has written songs with a more political angle. "I have that right to spout out my opinion," Kimbrough asserts.
Kimbrough has become disenchanted by what has happened in America in the last few years. "Big corporations and big business were the ones gaining rights and power, and individual Americans are losing their rights and power," he says, adding that personal liberties should be left alone.
On songs like "Pride" he reflects on the commercialization of religion in America ("Yeah, I know some creep made millions off of 'What Would Jesus Do'") and the lack of humbleness in our leadership, especially in events after 9/11 ("There is no power in pride / Pride is a man who goes to war to save face / And pride is a man who cannot tell the truth that might make him look weak").
The most cynical and the funniest track on the new album is "Act Like Nothing's Wrong," about the demise of several different characters, due to their greed and self-absorbtion: "Act like nothing's wrong / Everything's just fine / Hold your head up high and act like you don't really mind / If you're terrified like me of terrorists and crime / Please take my advice and simply act like nothing's wrong."
Local favorites Buffalo Nickel will begin the show at 7 p.m. at Hal & Mal's on Nov. 30. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available through Ticketmaster. Contact Operation Shoestring at 601-353-6336 for more information.