Friday, 23 May 2014

Country boy

“So what kind of music do you usually have here?”
“Oh we got both kinds – country and western.”
~ from ‘The Blues Brothers’

One of my dad's fave records
My dad was a big country and western fan. Even as a child the music of Jim Reeves, Billie Jo Spears and Tammy Wynette were more than familiar to me. Billie’s ’57 Chevrolet and Tammy’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E were particular faves, and let’s be honest here, both ladies were among the finest female voices of their genre. Various family parties and gatherings would ensure all the old classics got an airing: Blanket On The Ground, Crystal Chandeliers, Wichita Lineman (and what a song that is!) – yep, it’s fair to say I received a fair old grounding in country standards of the 60s and 70s. Yet it remained, for many years, a genre I explored no further.

It’s probably fair to say country and western music has never been cool. It’s probably also fair to say that it wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking genre either. I mean, the Grand Ol’ Opry was hardly a haven for hipsters, innovators or experimentalists, was it? For me, it had very little to interest or excite me, so my knowledge of country music beyond the aforementioned classics, was to say the least limited.

Cash! 'Nuff said.
But then I saw Johnny Cash at Glastonbury in 1994[1]. It was a turning point. Thing is, although I hadn’t experienced much of Johnny Cash’s music as a child (other than his novelty hit A Boy Named Sue), I had, as a music fan, purchased a second-hand copy of the ‘Live At San Quentin’ LP a couple years before that legendary Glastonbury appearance. But what I saw that afternoon made me not only an instant Johnny Cash fan, but also slightly curious about country music in general. I had, of course, come across various rock artists dabbling in country music over the years – R.E.M., the Byrds, Neil Young - but had otherwise all-but ignored the genre.

OK, so it’s not so easy to label Johnny Cash as purely a country singer. There is a strong argument to say he was way more rock than country. He started out with a musical style more reminiscent of rockabilly, evident in the ‘boom-chicka-boom’ rhythm he pioneered in the 50s. He was, of course, a quarter of the so-called ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ – along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and some bloke called Elvis something… - which formed Sun Records’ early roster. And how many Cash recordings contain the dreaded pedal-steel guitar? Er, very few as it happens.

Slowly, over the years (thanks in part to the White Stripes) I’ve explored country music more and more. I’ve waded through Cash’s extraordinarily vast back catalogue; encountered the likes of the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Emmylou Harris; and found myself drawn to many old and new bluegrass acts such as Allison Krauss, Bill Monroe, Blanche, etc. By the way, what happened to Blanche? Two excellent albums then nothing since 2007. Shame.

Sometimes, something comes totally from left-field and bowls you over. When I first heard First Aid Kit’s Emmylou, it was one of those moments the tears started welling up. (To be honest, I have one of those moments every time I hear it!) If you didn’t know better, you would think it’s a 70s country classic sung by one of the legendary Nashville-based female superstars of the era. So when you realise it’s actually two teenage sisters from Sweden in 2012 it adds another level of wonderment. I mean – those voices! Those harmonies! These girls understand American folk and country music and right now are one of my absolute favourite acts, and Emmylou is not only one of my fave tunes of the past few years, but my daughter's too. It shows how far country music has reached over the years and how many generations it continues to inspire.

First Aid Kit
I have to say I can’t stand the modern stars of so-called country music who just sound like corporate American rock/pop stars and look like they’ve just walked off the set of American Idol (which of course, some of them have). I mean, who decided Taylor Swift was ‘country’, for goodness sake? Even Kings of Leon are more country than any of that awful lot.

While I in no way consider myself to be even remotely knowledgeable about country music, I do like to think I am a part-time student in the field. I find myself gradually understanding it, making the links to the blues, rhythm and blues and traditional American folk music. The fact I’ve managed to write an article of this length on the subject is something of an achievement, but aficionados would no doubt sneer at my lack of obsession and in-depth comprehension of ‘their’ music.

But for the record, it goes without saying that Dolly Parton is an absolute bonafide genius through and through. Man, that woman can play.


[1] A story to be told in a future post.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post. I was at the Glastonbury concert as well (did you know it is available on CD? The album is called Live in England 1994). I echo just about every word in the post (never quite understood Dolly I must admit) and First Aid Kit are fantastic. I must get round to seeing them live; I was ill last time they came my way.