By Bill Kopp
It’s fashionable in some circles to declare rock as dead and buried. And while it’s true that other styles may have surpassed it sales-wise in the music marketplace, rock is very much alive. For evidence, one need only witness the sustained success of Theory of a Deadman. Formed nearly 25 years ago in Canada’s British Columbia Province, Theory soared to the top of the charts with their self-titled debut album.
Fronted by lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Tyler Connolly, the band took off and never looked back; in the band’s first 15 years, Theory placed every one of their albums in the Canadian Top Ten. Stateside success was a bit slower in coming, but once it did – with Theory’s third long player, 2008’s Scars & Souvenirs – there seemed to be no stopping the group. That record and the four albums that would follow each soared to the Top Ten on the U.S. Alternative Rock charts.
The group has landed a staggering 25 singles on the Mainstream Rock chart, with eight of those going Gold (500,000 units sold in the U.S.), Platinum (1 million units) or better. Along the way, Theory of a Deadman has filled arenas as an opening or headline act, in the process putting to rest any question as to whether rock is alive or dead.
Yet when it comes to critical success, the band’s track record stands in sharp contrast to its sales figures. Critics haven’t always been as kind as fans; a cross-section of reviewers writing for Allmusic.com, for example, has awarded each of the band’s first seven albums anywhere from a maximum of three stars out of five (for their debut and 2017’s Wake Up Call) down to one star for 2011’s The Truth Is…
Fortunately, Tyler Connolly isn’t bothered by all that. He admits that on occasion the band’s management sends him copies of reviews. “But they’re all positive,” he laughs. “I don’t know if that’s [being] filtered for us,” he says, though his next comment makes it clear that he knows the score. “We aren't a critically acclaimed band and never have been,” he concedes. “And at this point I think we've all accepted our fate.”
After decades within the machinery of the music business, Connolly has a clear sense of how things work. And while Theory has maintained a good working relationship with the band’s label Roadrunner Records (a division of the mighty Warner Music Group), he sees clouds on the horizon: not for rock itself, but for the industry.
“The labels are kind of freaking out,” he observes, “because they're losing control over something that they used to have complete control over.” He says that in today’s music scene, “the fans decide what a hit is, and in a lot of countries, radio is kind of dying.” It’s being replaced by streaming, he points out. And while that works out reasonably well for an established band like Theory (with a deep catalog of those seven albums, joined in mid-March by Dinosaur), it poses great challenges for newer, younger artists.
“Play listing and streaming are good if you have a fan base,” Connolly observes. “But I’m not sure what new bands are going to do; it’s going to be really tough.” While he seems fully committed to the future of his band, Connolly’s attitude about the prospects for the next wave of rockers is somewhat more pessimistic.
That dour mindset informs the band’s latest single, the hard-rocking title track from Dinosaur. Lyrics like “We’re all fucked, yeah, we can’t be saved,” and “Tonight we’re going out, going out like the dinosaur” suggest that even as the world is emerging from a global pandemic, Tyler Connolly doesn’t hold much hope for the future after all.
“I tend to think that we as humans, more than ever, are quite cynical and pessimistic,” he says. “As much as we want to pretend we're optimistic – ‘No, everything's going to be wonderful!’ – I think that inside, we're all kind of like, ‘This sucks. This is trash.’”
He says that “Dinosaur” builds on that kind of thinking. “I was playing on the human emotion of misery and the pessimism of the future things to come.” But in the same breath, he suggests that – just maybe – he’s not irrevocably convinced that we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket. “I think everything's going to be fine,” he says with a chuckle. “I don't think we're going to go out like the dinosaurs. [The song] is just a sentimental take on the glass-half-empty perspective.”
When it comes to lyrics, Connolly isn’t afraid to include something to amuse himself. “Dinosaur” features a snippet of lyrics, “20, 24 hours to go,” a direct lift from “I Wanna Be Sedated,” a classic from punk heroes the Ramones, featured on their breakthrough 1978 LP Road to Ruin. That inside reference is likely to be lost on many Theory of a Deadman fans. And that’s okay with Connolly. “Sometimes it's fun to do stuff like that and see who catches it,” he says. “You’re the first person to mention it.”
Sometimes, Connolly says, fans of his band know the words to songs that he wouldn't expect. He recalls a gig in Russia, years ago before that country launched its current war of aggression upon Ukraine. “We were just playing our normal set of songs,” he says. “And when we came back for the encore, the crowd was chanting: ‘Say goodbye! Say goodbye!’”
At first, Connolly and his band mates wondered what was going on. Was the crowd encouraging them to leave? But then they realized: “Oh, ‘Say Goodbye.’” The song was a deep album cut on Theory of a Deadman’s second album, 2005’s Gasoline. Save for a promotional-only CD, the song was never released as a single. But it had caught on in Russia. “It was our big song over there,” Connolly says. “This was before streaming, so we couldn’t even [track] what our popular songs were.”
Unfortunately for the Russian audience, Theory didn’t play the song for them. “We couldn’t,” Connolly explains, the embarrassment still stinging all these years later. “It had different [guitar] tunings.” But he made a note, and the next time the band played in Russia, they made sure to play “Say Goodbye.” “And they were really happy,” he says.
He points to Kiss as the musical masters of merchandising. “They've got Kiss coffins, Kiss pinball. And I think that as we get older, that's turning into our model. As we have a core fan base now, we're starting to do [those sorts of] things.” He mentions Deadman's Brew, a branded coffee, and says that the group is working on coming out with a Theory-branded alcoholic beverage. “Just like with the music,” he suggests, “we’re doing things to try to get ourselves out there.”
And a quarter century years after they started, the four members of Theory of a Deadman are committed to staying out there, playing their brand of 21st century rock. “Some bands actually broke up during COVID,” he says. “They weren't making money off streaming or sales.” Connolly emphasizes that he’s grateful that his group has a body of work that continues to sell. “Hopefully forever,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “We've been lucky. And I hope it will just keep going that way.”
Julian Marley has a famous last name. But the 47-year old singer, songwriter and musician has never rested on the shoulders of his father’s reputation. Born in London, he’s the ninth child of legendary reggae pioneer Bob Marley, and one of several to pursue a life in music. Julian Marley’s latest release, Colors of Royal, has its roots firmly planted in reggae, but it also represents Marley’s interest in – and considerable skill with – other musical forms.
“Normally, when most of the fans hear me, they hear the roots rock reggae, the ‘one drop,’” he explains. “This album has a different sound.” Producer Alexx Antaeus has worked with artists diverse as the Rolling Stones, Malcolm McLaren and Young M.C, and he brought that wide experience to the making of Colors of Royal. “He took me out of the box for this one,” Marley says.
But Marley established his musical bonafides long ago. With brothers Stephen, Damian and Kymani, he formed Ghetto Youths Crew in the late 1990s. More than a mere record label, it’s one component of Ghetto Youth Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bettering the lives of underprivileged people around the globe.
Julian released his first solo album, Lion in the Morning, in 1996. He toured internationally in support of that album, and was a featured main-stage artist on 1997’s all-star Lollapalooza Tour. Subsequent releases like 2003’s A Time & Place, Awake (2009) and 2019’s Grammy-nominated As I Am built his substantial following.
Along the way, Marley’s style has broadened to embrace all the kinds of music that inform his unique musical sensibility. His latest record is a culmination of his decades in music.
Marley says that Colors of Royal “has a bit of dance style, a bit of Afrobeat, a bit of Latin vibe.” He says that for him, making music has always been about “pushing the message beyond the limits, taking it to [different] places. If it can be translated in different ways and different sounds, then I'm all for it.”
Marley’s upbringing in London gave him a front row seat to many styles of music. “When you're in England, every music is top music,” he says. “You have rock, you have jazz.” He took it all in, as well as enjoying sounds from his mother’s record collection. I was surrounded by that,” he says, “listening to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. So I'm influenced by everything from Nat King Cole to John Lennon.” Combined with the reggae and ska of Jamaica, those influences all swirled around in Marley’s head.
Colors of Royal had its beginnings during the pandemic. “I was in Jamaica,” Marley recalls, “and obviously everything was locked down. But I was exploding with music; I had so much stuff inside that wanted to be released.” When he was able to go out again, Marley visited a small local restaurant that hosted nighttime music sessions. There he met Antaeus. The two became friendly, and would meet again and again at the restaurant.
On their third or fourth meeting, Antaeus approached Marley, saying, “You know what? I've got a studio inside this room here.” Marley was surprised and intrigued: “Let's go check it out,” he enthused. Antaeus had already begun work on a recording of “The Tide is High,” a 1967 classic by legendary reggae artist John Holt. The song had gained a second round of popularity when Blondie released their version in 1980, but Antaeus believed there was still more mileage in the song.
“I've been thinking about you for this track,” the producer told Marley. “I’d like to hear how you sound on it.” Marley agreed, cut a vocal, and was very pleased with the results. “From that seed, Alexx was like, ‘You know what? It would be nice to do more,’’’ he recalls. Colors of Royal is the result of that working relationship.
“It just came from nowhere,” Marley says. “It was not thought about; it wasn't in the plan. It was just led by a true divine inspiration.”
That divine inspiration is at the heart of everything Marley does. A devoted Rastafarian, his original lyrics are suffused with the positive, uplifting messages of that faith. Even in a world filled with pain and suffering, Marley’s mission is to share good vibes wherever he and/or his music goes.
“The positive is in every person,” Marley emphasizes. “The only time the positive is not there is when you’re not yourself.” And his idea of success is about much more than selling concert tickets, CDs or downloads of his music. “I want to see the people rise up,” he says. “That’s what success is. We want to see that seed of love and peace out there in the world.”
Another part of Marley’s message is extolling the benefits of ganja, considered a sacrament in the Rastafarian religion. His popular single “Boom Draw” from Awake praises the herb. And he’s encouraged by recent changes to the laws in the U.S., where marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 21 states and the District of Columbia. “It’s good to see,” he says. “We know what we've been talking about all these years: the medicine part, the meditation part and the spiritual values. So let’s give thanks for a step in the right direction after all of these years.”
Traversing the globe to perform for audiences on nearly every continent, Marley has made an important discovery. “Everywhere you go is different, but people are people,” he says. “As soon as that music starts, I don't even remember what part of the world I'm in anymore, because that spirit in the music takes over, and we all become one people.”
Traveling the world with a famous surname all but guarantees that people will have their own expectations of you. But Julian Marley is at peace with that, proud of his family name but nonetheless forging his own way in the world. He admits that his father inspired him: “When you see the thing that your father is doing, yeah, that's what you want to do,” he admits. “But I didn't want anyone to tell me to play music, and no one could tell me to stop.”
He says that growing up around his father’s music was an education. “Listening to my own family was like going to university for music,” he says. “You feel no pressure, because you're already educated with the right tools to go out there.”
And Marley does indeed go out there. Ahead of a run of show dates in the Southeast, on June 24 he’s a featured performer at the 3rd Annual Reggae Fest in Truckee, California. His set is sure to include songs from Colors of Royal as well as favorites from his back catalog. And it will all be delivered in harmony with his messages of love and unity.
“That’s why we go out there in the first place,” Marley says. “If it was just to sing about anything, I wouldn’t have the drive.” He emphasizes that a career in music built around the idea of merely being “an entertainer” wouldn’t be fulfilling for him. “I want to make music because I want to free the people's minds and bring people together for a good cause,” he says. “If it wasn't for that, I could be doing something different.”
Country-rock singer/songwriter Ashley McBryde was born in 1983 in Arkansas and raised near Saddle and Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. With a population of less than 1000 persons, Mammoth Spring is nearly the same distance – about 140 miles – from Springfield, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas. The nearest Interstate highway is some 75 miles to its southeast. Located just down the road from Mammoth Spring, unincorporated Saddle is so tiny that census figures aren’t even available.
In other words, Ashley McBryde comes from rural America. And the heartfelt, street-level lyrics of her original songs reflect that unalloyed background. She’s less slick than many of her Nashville contemporaries; that is likely one of the secrets to her success as both a concert draw and a recording artist. She doesn’t steer completely clear of cliché; doing that would place her outside the framework of today’s country music scene. But there’s a welcome authenticity to her music, one that makes listening a rewarding experience.
McBryde self-released her self-titled debut long-player in 2006, not long after attending Arkansas State University. Shortly after its release, she took a path followed by many ambitious and aspiring country artists: she moved to Nashville. By 2009 McBryde had taken first place in the fiercely competitive Country Showdown two years in a row. With the wind at her back, she recorded a second self-released album, Elsebound. Turning her focus to live performance, she hit the road, sharpening her craft. Not long after self-releasing a third set (2016’s Jalopies and Expensive Guitars EP), McBryde attracted major label attention, and signed with Warner Music Nashville.
In light of her hard work, determination and creativity, the title of McBryde’s major label debut would seem more than a bit ironic.
Released in 2017, Girl Going Nowhere found her co-writing with Nashville colleagues across 11 tracks. A highlight of the disc is “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” named among the best songs of the year by both The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Released as a single, the tune rose to #30 on Billboard’s country charts.
In his glowing, four-star review of Girl Going Nowhere for Allmusic.com, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine praised McBryde’s “subtle songwriting,” adding that “the production, along with her powerhouse voice, demand attention. Once McBryde has that, she gives you plenty of reasons to return to this exceptional record again and again.”
Those sentiments were echoed by many other reviewers. Covering the album for Sounds Like Nashville, Annie Reuter characterized it as “just a taste what’s to come from McBryde.” She also noted that praise for the Arkansas native came from such high profile fellow artists as Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church. The latter invited McBryde onstage at one of his concerts, giving the Arkansas native a boost. But she was already on her way up.
Girl Going Nowhere was nominated at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards for Best Country Album; the award went to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. But McBryde was nominated twice at that year’s Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards: Female Artist of the Year and New Female Artist of the Year. She took home the trophy for the latter. That same year McBryde won New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards.
The history of popular music is littered with tales of the so-called “sophomore slump.” The thinking goes like this: an artist has his or her entire life to come up with good songs for their debut album on a major label. If it’s at all successful and they get an opportunity to make a second record, they usually have but a few months to create new material. And against the backdrop of a touring schedule in promotion of their first record, that challenge is only increased.
But when she returned in 2020 with Never Will, McBryde went against that trend. Achieving widespread critical acclaim, the record – featuring 11 songs, all but one of which was co-written by McBryde – was named among the year’s best by Billboard, Rolling Stone, Spin, Stereogum and music trade publication Variety. Yet McBryde didn’t need those accolades to boost her confidence; she hit the road in support of the album on her One Night Standards Tour in January of that year, more than two months before the album even hit the shelves.
The tour was named after the lead-off single from Never Will. Released the previous September, “One Night Standards” showcases McBryde’s wit and sassy style; it’s the tale of a woman in a hotel room with a man, with her laying out the ground rules for a one-night stand.
Rock On Magazine - Theory of a Deadman 2
The single soared to the #11 spot on Billboard’s country airplay chart, and climbed all the way to the #1 position on Canada’s country chart.
Never Will’s second single was released in October 2020, by which time most concert tours had been curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But even from their armchairs, the critics and public alike showered praise upon “Martha Divine,” a tale of a young woman upset upon realizing that her mother’s boyfriend is being unfaithful. In her first-person approach to the lyrics, McBryde makes it clear that she’s not prepared to be a passive bystander, and sets out to right the egregious wrong.
That forced absence from the touring circuit led McBryde to record and rush-release an EP (extended play) titled Never Will: Live from a Distance. Recorded live, albeit without an audience, McBryde and her band – guitarists Chris Harris and Mark Helmkamp, Christian Sancho on bass and drumemr Quinn Hill – run through six of the second album’s songs, presenting them in the arrangements concertgoers would have witnessed had the tour been allowed to continue. To promote the May 2021 EP release, McBryde and her band premiered a live concert on her YouTube channel.
In every single year after her debut release, McBryde has been honored by multiple nominations and/or rewards in recognition of her artistry. Between 2020 and 2023, McBryde scored a staggering 26 nominations, variously from the ACM, CMA and The Recording Academy (Grammys). She earned five trophies from among that lot; her most recent and prestigious award came in February 2023 when “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” a duet with Carly Pearce, won the Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.
The pair beat out the illustrious duo of Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, frequent nominees Brothers Osborne and even country icons Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.
And McBryde’s creative ambitions are seemingly without bounds. With well-earned critical and commercial momentum, she had quietly been working on not one, but two new albums. She delivered both to her label at the same time, and Lindeville was released in September 2022. Leading a six-person songwriting team that included fellow critics’ darling Brandy Clark, McBryde crafted a work of the sort more commonly associated with the world of rock: a concept album.
The record’s 13 songs are an interwoven collection of wry vignettes and character studies, suffused with wit and humor. Exploring the spectrum of human emotions, Lindeville represents the latest in an unbroken string of creative triumphs from the young woman from Arkansas. And with another album already completed and waiting in the wings, the future looks brighter than ever for Ashley McBryde.