Sunday, 20 February 2011

Yes, I know you hate Country music - but please bear with me!

Country music in the Sixties used to mean dreary old Countrypolitan snoozers like Jim Reeves and Eddie Arnold, placid middle-aged men who dressed like business executives. Occasionally, you’d catch sight of someone in more traditional Western garb on TV, but they’d be so saccharine you’d need a shot of insulin to avoid a coma. Besides, Country was where old white rockers went to die after the British Invasion (after recanting and claiming they’d really always hated Rock ‘n’ Roll). 

Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Folk were cool – liking Country was the equivalent of sporting a musical comb-over. Yes, Ray Charles recorded two best-selling albums of country songs, but most people took their quality as a sign that “The Genius” could transmute ordure into gold.

Amongst British pop groups, only The Beatles bucked the anti-Country trend, writing and recording a whole slew of numbers that we can now identify as pure Country, or as the beginning of Country Rock, including “All My Loving”“Run for Your Life”“I’m a Loser”,  “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”,  and “What Goes On”  - the last one was murdered by Ringo, who went to slaughter Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” and to turn Carl Perkins’s sublime “Honey Don’t” into a Batley Variety Club version of country pop.  (I suspect the Moptops’ love of Country was partly due to George Harrison’s fondness for country guitar licks.)

And that was about as hip as country got until The Byrds, under the influence of privileged, dissolute Southern boy, Gram Parsons, recorded the LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo – generally reckoned to be the first Country Rock album. (No-one in the UK bought it at the time – apart from me.) Then, Parsons went on to infiltrate the Stones, and suddenly they were producing countrified numbers such as “Dead Flowers”“Country Honk”“Wild Horses” and “Sweet Virginia”. Parson formed pure Country-Rock Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead went Country and then came New Riders of the Purple Sage, and suddenly every other album cover featured young drug addicts from Crawley or Los Angeles dressed up as frontiersmen: sepia became the colour of choice.  Gram Parsons teamed up with Emmylou Harris and made the two greatest Country Rock albums ever – G.P. and Return of the Grievous Angel (which no-one bought at the time - including me). Then came the Eagles, with their soft-rock version of the music: we all began to lose interest, and it was left to Emmylou – with the help of some of the world’s finest guitarists - to mix traditional country, bluegrass and rockabilly into a concoction that sounded like it was vaguely in touch with its roots.

Waylon Jennings
Meanwhile, real Country had been dependent on the likes of Johnny Cash, Bakersfield’s Buck Owens and ex-con Merle Haggard to staunch the flood of emetic country-pop effluent. In the mid-Seventies, ex-rock ‘n’ roller Waylon Jennings (he gave up his plane seat to The Big Bopper on the night of the crash), Nashville reject Willie Nelson, Tompall Glazer and a handful of others coagulated into the Outlaw movement, and produced a surprise hit album – Wanted: The Outlaws – and suddenly Country was like, you know, kinda groovy again. (I bought a stack of Outlaw albums at Ernest Tubb’s famous record store in Nashville in the late ‘70s.)

The movement chuntered along for a bit until we got sick of wealthy superstars pretending to be cowboys. Willie Nelson became an international middle-of-the-road crooner, and that appeared to be that. But, dagbladdit!,  the mid-Eighties produced yet another revival of genuine Country, spearheaded by baldie hat-wearer Dwight Yoakam and soon-to-be hopeless crack-addict Steve Earle – both of whom were terrific. I was hooked again for a while. 

My final Country-loving phase came when I was sent over as part of the team covering what was to prove fat sleazeball Bill Clinton’s election victory in 1992. On the plane over I heard someone called Marty Stuart doing a red-hot version of Johnny Cash’s “Doing My Time” with The Man himself – and I was re-engaged for a bit.

Garth "Bunter" Brooks
Unfortunately, by that year, a behatted chubster named Garth Brooks was the biggest-selling recording artist in America – and what he produced was a truly abysmal travesty of Country Music. He has sold 68,500,000 albums to date, more than anyone else in any music category  anywhere since 1991. Brooks, an amiable sort of cove, destroyed the music that has given me great pleasure over the years: the genre now seems to be entirely populated by anaemic prats in hats creating flavourless pabulum for tasteless morons (fittingly, for the past ten years, Fatty Brooks has had an exclusive distribution deal for new releases with Wal-Mart). 

One despairs.

Even in the unlikely event that you’ve read this far, none of the above information will have been of any interest to you whatsoever, because you’d rather listen to an album of Tibetan nose-flute music than chaps in chaps singing a lachrymose lament for some dust-blown dump two thousand miles from the Beverly Hills mansion they currently occupy, or an up-tempo ditty about how they’re truck-driving sons-of-guns with a trail of purty waitress girl-friends from Tucson to Tucumcari and a posse of lawmen hot on their carefree, whiskey-drinkin’, Good Ol’ Boy trail.

But, if you’re still reading, you may as well listen to one or two of these, some of my all-time favourite Country songs: you may be surprised.

“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, Waylon Jennings – classic, self-referential Outlaw track with some great lines and a thuddingly meaty beat and a slightly-phased guitar droning throughout. Man’s music, pardner!

“Guitar Town”, Steve Earle – classic, self-referential New Traditionalist romp with some brilliant lines (the singer has a “two-pack habit and a motel tan”) and a very tasty twangy guitar. (Earle later appeared - bearded and five stone heavier - as a drugs counsellor inThe Wire.)

“Past the Point of Rescue”, Hal Ketchum – pretty much Country Pop, but strangely haunting - avoid his other stuff.

“Long Black Veil”, Lefty Frizzell – a story song which sounds like it was written in 1880, but was actually penned in 1959. Frizzell, who had one of the best voices in Country, was a giant of the 1950s Honky Tonk era. He killed himself by refusing to take his blood pressure medicine because it interfered with his drinking.  

“Baby Likes to Rock It Like a Boogie-Woogie Choo-Choo Train”, The Tractors – seasoned session players having fun: Country traditionalists would probably sneer at this “Hot Country” item, but it always cheers me up.

“Ramblin’ Man”, Hank Williams – one of the greatest popular entertainers of the last century, and the template for all the self-destructive booze-hound drug addict musicians who’ve followed. Died aged 29 of alcohol and heroin in the back of a white Cadillac limousine being ferried to his next gig. I love this song because his self-pitying, coon-hound howlin’ at the Moon misery of the whole thing is so rampantly over the top, but nevertheless utterly convincing. I could have filled this list with nothing but Hank Williams records – he was a stupendous song-writer and performer; he is Country Music. (If you want something more cheerful, there’s the wonderful “Honky Tonk Blues”.) 

From this to Garth Brooks!!

“Down at the Twist and Shout”, Mary Chapin Carpenter – close to pop, certainly, but irresistible. The great Cajun band, Beausoleil (mentioned in the song) are wonderful here (they usually are). Pity Mary’s bum is now so big it would justify a separate zip-code.

“Jolene”, Dolly Parton – one of the most beautiful records ever made: a Country song even haters of the genre can enjoy.

“Feel Like Going Home”, Charlie Rich – a hugely touching Misery Masterpiece by an alcoholic who couldn’t handle the great success his talent as a song-writer, singer and piano-player brought him. Like so many great acts, Rich started at Sun Records in the Fifties. What a voice!

Merle Haggard was convinced to follow a career in music after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin, where Haggard was serving time for a bungled robbery. He’s about as blue collar and authentic as it gets. He enjoyed a huge hit with his riposte to the hippe generation, “Okie from Muskogee” (Hippies pretended it was ironic - it really wasn’t), but“Working Man’s Blues” is my favourite (though one would like to point out that the narrator’s life might have been easier if he hadn’t sired nine children). James Burton’s guitar-playing on the priginal is sensational, but Roy Nichols is pretty damned good in this live performance:

Emmylou Harris’s “Luxury Liner” – a remake of a Gram Parsons original – is one of the best examples of “Hot Country”, a term which implies a fast tempo and blistering guitar licks – supplied here by the incomparable English picker, Albert Lee. (As I discovered, this is a good one to listen to while bowling along on a sunny day in a hire car on a deserted, dead straight road south of the Mason-Dixon Line – bliss!)

Another great road song is Emmylou’s singing partner, quavery-voiced Gram Parsons’ lovely “Return of the Grievous Angel”: “I saw my devil, and I saw my deep blue sea/And I thought about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee”. James Burton’s the picker once more.

Junior Brown’s version of the Red Simpson song, “Highway Patrol”, is a delight - guitar breaks rarely make me laugh, but this one does.

“Hurt” by Johnny Cash is   a cover version of a Nine Inch Nails song about drug addiction recorded towards the end of the Great Man’s career. It has often been noted that the accompanying video tends to leave chaps blubbing, but women don’t get it. Interesting.

Now to another pill-guzzling alcoholic - George Jones (or “No-Show” Jones as he’s known due to his chronic habit of missing performances on account of being as “unwell” as a newt). Many reckon he has the best voice in country music, and the tender “Grass Won’t Grow” shows it off to fine effect.  (How this man has managed to reach the age of 79 is as incomprehensible as Jerry Lee Lewis’s longevity: governments should fund research into this phenomenon.)

Speaking of The Killer, I’ll finish with his signature Country song, “What Made Milwaukee Famous - for my money, the award for the finest  Country voice of all time goes to the Piano-Pumpin’ Wild Man from Ferriday, Louisiana.

So, are you convinced yet? I thought not. My dog done went rabid, my mule died on me, the Bank foreclosed on my farm, my wife ran off with a guitar-totin’ drifter and I’m on two bottles of Jim Beam a day - and now this!

Tarnation, boy - least I still got the music. 


  1. I’m sorry to puncture your delusions but you’re not the only one partial to a bit of country. Your list of favourites is interesting, but I would lose the Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Junior Brown in favour of Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak, Oh Lonesome Me or I Can’t Stop Loving you. Johnny Cash should be represented by something earlier… Hurt is powerful but it isn’t a country song… Cry cry Cry, Folsom Prison Blues, Home of the Blues or a little knoiwn favourite of my own, Melva’s Wine would be acceptable substitutes. Ray Price’s Crazy Arms or Invitation to the blues would be welcome too. (yes I’m a traditionalist). Where is Willie Nelson? The best voice in country for me, certainly the most distinctive. Sacrilegious as it sounds, Emmylou Harris is toothsome and a fine harmony singer but I’ve always thought her voice works better on bluegrass…she did an album of it but I can’t remember the title….looked it up: Roses in the Snow. For Hank Williams Snr. I would prefer I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry or Lovesick Blues, but your two aren’t bad. As for your history lesson, have you got something against Buffalo Springfield?...they were practically a country band and they spawned Poco.

    Thanks for the excuse to trawl the country section ofmy iTunes collection – enjoyable.
    Sunday, February 20, 2011 - 10:23 PM

  2. Harumphrey is right about the Springfield and as I recall you bought the Poco live LP when it was released, along with the first Crazy Horse LP, so you have no excuse. It may be time for you to revisit it.

    Your choices are really good, although I have never quite got Dwight Yoakam who fails the hat/cattle test for me. I bought the Burritos Gilded Palace of Sin on its release and it's always been a favourite. Nothing divides friends like the two GP solo LPs. I love them, especially Grievous Angel, where oddly his voice and pitching are in much better shape than the earlier GP. Great taste Gronners.
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - 12:39 AM

  3. A few years ago, I was in New York and went to a really run down old club in the Lower East Side to see Jimmy Webb in concert. As well as being an excellent songwriter and pianist, he is an entertaining raconteur. He was touring with Waylon Jennings when a female interviewer made a comment on how disgracefully dissolute his lifestyle was and asked for his reaction. After a pause, Waylon replied "You know what, lady? My give-a-shitter just broke." Maybe, as with about half the artists you name, a destructive streak goes with the territory.

    Check out Jimmy Webb's 10 Easy Pieces for his own stripped back versions of truly great songs originally written for other artists.
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - 12:53 AM

  4. Well, gee folks, I’m delighted to know I’m not the only one with a taste for this sort of music! Harumphrey, my favourite Willie Nelson track is one he made in his early pre-Outlaws Nashville days (when he wore a suit and had short hair). It’s called “Misery Mansions” and is gloriously miserable, as you’d expect – pure Hank Williams. If I could have found it on YouTube, I’d have included it. I was also tempted by “Gotta Get Drunk” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. I eventually became a big fan of Buffalo Springfield thanks to a friend at school, Pete Storr, who introduced me to a lot of excellent new music – he had great taste (apart from a fondness for Deep Purple) and was a lot more adventurous than I was. Love Ray Price, and Johnny Cash’s “Melva’s Wine”. Disagree about Emmylou Harris – Eilte Hotel proved (to me, at least) that she could carry an album.

    Yes, Ex-KCS, I still have the Poco album (“Kind Woman” almost made it onto the list), but Crazy Horse disappeared somewhere along the way, which is a shame – and I’m a huge Neil Young fan. I didn’t catch up with the Burritos until their post-Parsons live album (and I only bought that because John Peel cited it as his favourite all-time LP). As you probably know, the reason for Parsons’ being in better voice on Grievous Angel than on GP is that he was even more utterly wrecked throughout the recording of the former than during the latter – which seems a shame, given his extraordinary luck at landing James Burton as his guitarist and having found Emmylou Harris. As for Dwight Yoakam, the only drawback is that he’s evidently a massive prat – having said that, I caught a concert by him in Shepherd’s Bush about 20 years ago, and he – and his producer/guitarist, Pete Anderson – were fantastic.

    Jimmy Webb – huge respect for “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” and “Highwayman”, but McArthur Park has probably been spoiled for all time by Richard Harris’ - I’m listening to 10 Easy Pieces on Spotify as I write this, and enjoying it. And, yes, one gets the impression that spilling Waylon Jennings’s pint might be a bad move – which made it even odder that they got an actor who looked like a puffy, malodorous computer geek with a bum-fluff beard to play him in “Walk the Line” – if Jennings had still been alive, I expect he would have ripped the director a new one for that insult. I’m sure you’re right about the destructive streak – I’m very loath to forgive artists of any sort for behaving like pigs, but I’m not sure I’d have much music left in my collection if my favourite performers had been squeaky-clean corporate types.

    Anyway, thank you both for your comments – I really enjoyed them.
    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 12:48 PM