My friend and colleague Peter Milligan very kindly put together a three-CD compilation of country music for me a little while ago, as a “Country for Dummies”-esque introduction to the genre. As some of you may know, my preferred musical tastes and tipples lie somewhat (though definitely not exclusively — see editor’s interjections below) towards the heavier end of the spectrum. Peter’s “mix tape” was therefore a little …challenging. I tried. Lord knows, I tried. But I had to reluctantly admit defeat to Peter.
It’s possible that my over-exposure to the brutal form of bastardised aural assault that is Irish Country & Western (aka Country and Irish) — a firm favourite with my co-workers during my summer jobs when I was a teenager — has inoculated me against all forms of country music. In any case, I really don’t think I’m missing much. Peter begs to differ and makes the case for country in the following guest post…
At the end of April I received my guitar back from Philip as he had borrowed it to play at an outreach event. We started talking about open mic nights and how we had yet to perform at the same one. I stated that I only did country songs at open mic nights and Prof. Moriarty expressed surprise and a “not getting” of said genre.
Not entirely legally, over the following weekend I constructed a “country music sampler” for your favourite nanoscientist and, as is often the way with me, it stretched to three CDs. I didn’t include anything by Johnny Cash as his cover of “Hurt” had already been discussed as a “good song”. [Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt is one of the most affecting songs I have ever heard. The first time I saw the video, I was in floods of tears. Even now, after countless re-listens and re-viewings, I still find myself welling up. PJM.] Bearing in mind the genre that song emanates from, I knew I had a challenge ahead of me to change your favourite metaller’s attitude to a form of music that has plenty of preconceptions, some of which are valid.
After a few weeks, I received the news today I had kind of been expecting. Philip said that, try as he might, he had found my Country Music Sampler “unlistenable”. He is not the first metal fan to evince such views to me, indeed that genre is known for its intolerance of any other kind of music [Sorry, Peter, but my pentagram-encrusted metal soul screams out at the injustice of this! I know many metal fans whose tastes, like mine, run from Aretha to Zappa, via, as just a handful of genre-spanning examples, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Kate Bush, Fear Factory, Duran Duran, Christy Moore, The Cure, The Smiths, Bowie, The Beatles. And The Shadows. (Examples all lifted from a scroll down my iTunes library.) PJM.] but I have to be honest, that wasn’t his primary reason for finding the music of Hank Williams et al. unpalatable. It seems the faux country music of his past has so poisoned his aural palate that he cannot even countenance a collection with an admittedly liberal interpretation of “country”.
So how did we get here and what is to be done?
There is no genre of music as misunderstood or as reviled as country music. There is also no genre of music as brutally honest as country music; there is nowhere to hide in country, your soul is bared wide open for all to see [Beg to differ. Four words: Fell On Black Days. (And while we’re on the subject of Chris Cornell’s incomparable, incredible talent, Johnny Cash’s version of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is everything country should be…
Misery, pain and addiction are well trodden themes in country […and metal. It seems that misery really does love company. PJM] and my sampler contained them all. It’s a good idea to see your country heroes live when you get the chance as they have a habit of not hanging around. Whilst most country artists are white they are not all men. I don’t think any musical genre really ticks both of those diversity boxes. Modern feminism and the MeToo movement is all very well but Tammy, Dolly and Loretta were doing it forty years ago.
My own journey to country music has rather strange beginnings. I was always an indie kid as a teen with a side interest in blues. University in the early 90s saw my tastes grow into the blossoming lo-fi/alt.rock scene in the US and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement became a pivotal record in my life. They became my favourite band and I was happy to discover that several of my friends in my hometown coincidentally liked them too. When I suggested that “Range Life” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was a cool song, one of my friends suggested that I listen to Silver Jews, who were a “Pavement spin-off band” – pedantic note, the converse is actually true – as they were like a countrified version of Pavement. So I started to buy Silver Jews records as well – in those days, I bought vinyl, and was called a Luddite for doing so, funny how fashions have changed – and started to listen to the various incarnations of Will Oldham along with Sparklehorse, Whiskeytown, Wilco and other bands straddling the indie/country – essentially alt.country borderline.
I had CDs too as some of these albums were not available in the UK on vinyl in those days. I recall spending (a lot) of time during my Ph.D studies at the Daresbury Laboratory doing X-Ray experiments on copper crystals with sulphur containing aromatic molecules stuck to them. I had packed “Stranger’s Almanac” by Whiskeytown and a twofer of GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons for listening to whilst my Ph.D supervisor and I were doing our long shifts at the laboratory. Whilst my boss was seen to tap his feet to Stranger’s Almanac from time-to-time, he did complain that he didn’t like it very much. The Gram Parsons stuff though was a different kettle of sturgeon altogether. On hearing me talk about it, he actually thought that I was going on about Alan Parsons, an artiste his brother liked.
In those days, the internet was far more rudimentary than it is today; indeed, social networking, youtube and Wikipedia did not exist – oh that they did for the red-eyed long hours of synchrotron work! [Peter and I share a love of beamtime at large scale facilities. PJM] So in order to discover more about Country Music, I was reliant mostly on the music press, whose veracity was, and still is, decidedly variable – not that the internet is much better. One thing they all agreed on though was that Gram Parsons was the man. I picked up the Gram Parsons disc second-hand in a now-defunct record shop in the West End of Glasgow. I then discovered that this disc contained “proper country music”, i.e. with violins and pedal steel guitars that actually sounded like something your grandparents would listen to. There was no way my supervisor was hearing this. I kept it turned down so that no-one else could hear it but eventually I kind of got into it.
Then a CD came along that changed it all for me. Sounds of the New West was a free CD with Uncut Magazine in 1998 and it became an almost constant companion. I was interested to see it include Silver Jews and Will Oldham and it introduced me to Willard Grant Conspiracy, Freakwater, Lambchop and The Handsome Family. I now have several albums by most of these and have seen some of them live, indeed a track from each one is included in your favourite caffeine junkie’s sampler but are sadly all “unlistenable”. Although released later, the Beyond Nashville discs are similar in approach although contain older material also. I should also point out that the sampler contained such country music luminaries as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – I do after all lean toward the “outlaw country” sub-genre.
When I moved to Nottingham, a friend who was part of the folk scene started to get into country music also. He posted on Facebook, linking me, that he “got it” and that the triumvirate of country music as far as he was concerned was Gram Parsons, Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt. A trio of more drugged out nihilists you could never hope to meet. Like many others, including Teenage Fanclub, I worship at the altar of Gene Clark. He wrote music of great beauty, sensitivity and fragility. His “No Other”, whilst not technically a country record, is one of those “lost classics” that the critics purr over.
As to what constitutes country music; well my judgement is as subjective as anyone else. I included Creedence, Stones, Scott Walker, Grateful Dead, R.E.M., The Band and even Pavement on the scanning probe doyen’s compilation and each one is a country song. Alas, even they were too country for your favourite teetotal vegetarian. [It’s a question of the genre/style. Not the band. Each of those bands has produced music that I enjoy. PJM.]
How rock and roll is country music? Hank’s heart gave out at 29. Gram Parsons checked out of an OD at 26. His manager stole his body, drove it into the Joshua Tree National Park and set fire to it. Johnny Cash gave us the immortal, most rock and roll line of all time, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”.
When my wife and I got married we decided, rather tongue-in-cheekily, to name the dinner tables after country singers. I am very proud to have sat at a top table entitled, “The Hank Williams Table**” and my eldest step-daughter demanded that her table be named after Dolly Parton. Hank Williams is the undisputed king of country music. His legacy is a rich tapestry. Go discover***.
Thanks to my wife, Dawn, and also to Dom, Mark, and Jimmy who also received the sampler and gave me some valuable feedback also.
If you want to chat about country music or receive a sampler, leave a comment and we’ll get back to you!
** my nascent father-in-law proceeded to tell everyone that Hank Williams was the guitar player in The Shadows.
*** The Gilded Palace of Sin is as good a place as any to start!