This is a guest post from the League’s own James Hanley! When I read Professor Hanley’s submission, I had simultaneous, conflicting feelings. Something so well-written, thorough and informative makes me jealous, and makes me think I really need to step up my game.
On the other hand, not only was this a pleasure to read and listen to, but it saved my lazy butt some serious work! Take it away, Professor…
Glyph says, “OOOOH! DO ALT-COUNTRY! PLEEEZE!” And who can resist such a plea? Even a FYIGM LibertarianTM like me likes to give a little.
For the record, I’ve always hated country music. If it’s played on any of the 15 dozen indistinguishable country radio stations in your town, I hate it. (OK, give me a few drinks and I’ll sing “Friends in Low Places” with gusto, but that’s it; under no circumstances could I ever not loathe “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”) But in my adult years I began to realize that there’s a great universe of non-pop country, including not only what we call “alt,” but some of the old stuff, back to the ‘early 60s, ’50s, and before. To know the roots of contemporary alt country, you have to know some Roy Acuff, Patsy Montana, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Kitty Wells, along with the more-well-remembered Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. What attracted me was the stripped down nature of a lot of it, the lack of layering in production (not that I’m anything less than awestruck by Phil Spector’s truly awe-inspiring “Wall of Sound,” and not that I don’t know every note in a couple of Pink Floyd albums). It’s the same interest that attracted me to early punk rock and to Tom Waits, and that now has me taking a belated listen to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen; the sense of spareness, the understanding that what isn’t there–the empty spaces in the music that haven’t been filled–tell as much of the story as what you actually hear.
The influences of the old stars are still present, but have been pulled into such diverse paths that alt country is a vast amorphous catch-all covering a range of very different styles. In fact alt country arguably began back in the 1950s, when Starday records just kept doing what it had been doing all along instead of joining in with the newly developing Nashville Sound. The Nashville sound gave us some of the greatest performers ever, such as Patsy Cline, but ultimately ruined popular country by over-emphasizing pop song structures, eventually evolving in the late ’60s/early ’70s into countrypolitan (the era of “crossover” artists like Glenn Campbell and Kenny Rodgers) and in the next decade into country pop, the sickening blend of country and soft-rock/bubble-gum pop that still rules the airwaves. But as Nashville became more pop-focused it was was challenged by the Bakersfield sound (think Buck Owens–“The Streets of Bakersfield,” geddit?–and Merle Haggard) and outlaw country (think of Kris Kristofferson and the Hank Williamses, Sr. and Jr., despite their wildly different sounds), which along with bluegrass were the original alt country stylings.
Today’s alt country ranges from a contemporary outlaw sound to bluegrass, to folky/gospelly stuff, to rockabilly, psychobilly, honky-tonk, cowpunk and that catch-all category, Americana (or maybe Americana is just a synonym for alt-country, or is a bigger category that includes alt country and other types of folks music; there’s no authoritative ruling on these things). I’m hoping to do several posts to provide you with some understanding of the range of styles, but since folks who hate country are inclined to be dismissive at the first hint of twang (or at least that’s how I was), I want to start in this post with what I think are very accessible songs, then introduce some edgier outlaw and rockabilly stuff in later posts. Other than accessibility, the theme tying these songs together is they’re all songs I like to sing (badly) while strumming (badly) on my acoustic.
Let’s start with Shawn Colvin, a woman with a perfect country/folk voice, singing legendary songwriter John Prine’s* “Killing the Blues.” You may have heard the recent Robert Plant and Alison Krauss version of this, but while Plant and Krauss are both brilliant artists they pooched this one, turning a song that hovers in that uneasy void between hope and despair into a tedious dirge. To my ear, Colvin’s is the definitive version, country folk at its best. Her voice is a bit shaky in concert, so you could easily argue the album version is better, but there’s something special in this video about the simplicity of the performance. On stage alone, with no gimmicks, no effects, no safety net, she embodies the song’s sense of vulnerability.
I can never get that one quite right on my acoustic. The little hook that gives the guitar line its distinctive sound is an easy E to Esus4 shift, but I can never get it to sound right because I only strum, and there’s a grace note in there I need to pick. But this next song, “Drunken Poet’s Dream, by Ray Wilie Hubbard, has an easy chord sequence for you hackabilly home-strummers. The first lines, “I’ve got a woman who’s wild as Rome, she likes to lay naked and be gazed upon,” are enough to know we’re into outlaw music now. But I’m still focusing on accessibility, so this isn’t wild dirty outlaw country, just contemplative outlaw country about love, poetry, and burning bridges.
Next up on the hit parade is “Wagon Wheel,” a great singable song (also easy to strum) with a complex history. Bob Dylan half wrote a song for a movie, which didn’t get in the film but did get bootlegged. Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor stumbled on a copy as a teenager, wrote some more lyrics to fill it out, gave it a bluegrass twist, and performed it for several years before thinking about the copyright issue. When he approached Dylan, the Bard liked what he’d done with it and agreed to a co-writing and shared copyright agreement. But the story goes even deeper, because Dylan adapted part of the chorus from bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “Rock Me Mama,” who got that song from Big Bill Broonzy, who had recorded it in the 1920s. The Dylan/Secor song isn’t Broonzy’s song, mind you, but with that provenance–legendary blues singers, America’s most noted songwriter, and some old-timey Appalachian bluegrass,**–it’s fitting that this has become an alt country standard. The audio quality on this video isn’t great, it starts a couple measures late, and the crowd can’t sing for sh*t, but this is a song that’s meant to be heard live and sung along with, so just pretend you’ve had a few and are right there in the crowd adding your voice to the joyous throng.
Robert Earl Keen, I think, is one of those folks who are revered within certain circles and almost unheard of outside those circles. He’s right up their with John Prine as a great songwriter, so I want to give him a nod here. “I’m Comin’ Home” may not be his greatest song, but it’s one I love to bash out on my guitar (emphasis on the first syllable, please) from time to time.
The last two songs are by two more women with phenomenal voices. But unlike the pure clarity of Shawn Colvin’s voice, Eilen Jewell and Lucinda Williams–especially Williams–have voices that moan with pain. Jewell straddles the alt country/folk line, but leans more to the country side of it than Colvin, and has done excellent versions of Dylan’s “Walkin’ Down the Line,” and Erik Andersen’s “Dusty Boxcar Wall.” This is a perfectly done live version of “Where They Never Say Your Name.” This song is a great example of building on music history. She got the idea from an old Jimmie Rodgers’ song, the first two notes sound like they’re taken straight from a Johnny Cash intro, the bass line’s classic country, and the song’s chock full of blues licks and–maybe I’m crazy, but I’m going to say it anyway–Dick Dale surf guitar homages.*** This is the last one I chose for this post. I wanted to limit myself to 5 songs, but I kept coming back to it and playing it again and thinking it’s so phenomenal how can I not include it?
And to close out our introduction to the softer side of alt country, I turn to the living embodiment of heartache, Lucinda Williams. A couple of years ago Johanna and I were back in her Southern California hometown, and by a stroke of luck Lucinda Williams was playing at the Ventura Theater, with Chrissie Hynde opening for her……on our anniversary. Awwwwesooome! Lucinda’s what country’s supposed to be, what it used to be, but no longer is. As my friend Jeff said, she looks like she’s been rode hard and put up wet. You know she’d never make the top 10 on American Idol. I hate to use the word authentic, but if you want a succinct statement of the difference between Lucinda Williams and any of the bland indistinguishable pop-country princesses produced on the Music Row assembly line, that word captures it all. Williams can rock out. She blew the roof off the Ventura Theater with “Essence,” a song that starts as pure country and builds to a straight-out rock ending. You can see a live version of it here, but I think the one we saw carried that closing section out about twice as long and just built the musical tension to the point where it was almost unbearable, where the audience needed closure, before hitting that final chord that resolved it. It was emotionally draining–I got pulled so deeply into the music that as the last chord died away I almost felt like I’d woken up from a trance.
But here I want to give you one of her lesser known gems, “Blue,” a song that is achingly spare, forlorn, and beautiful. While I generally prefer to feature live performances, Williams is famous for being a perfectionist in the studio, and her production of this song is so perfect in every detail, that this one has to be the album version. Bo Ramsey, a master at building rich songs out of bare-bones arrangements, co-produced, and the influence of his minimalist aesthetic is unmistakeable here. Ignore the cheesy video someone put together when they posted this online–just close your eyes and listen, with intensity.
If you’ve avoided alt country because pop country really sucks, I hope you’ve found something you can connect with here. If you’ve been curious about alt country but didn’t know any, I hope I whetted your appetite enough for you to go listen to more. If you’re an alt country fan and are outraged that I didn’t play the Drive By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, or Hayseed Dixie, feel free to argue my choices. Just remember that this time I was going for an accessible introduction. Given space, for this particular post I would have added the Be Good Tanyas (seriously. do. not. fall. in. love. with. me.), Gillian Welch (even us agnostics like some good gospel), Lone Justice (dude, where’s my time machine? I need to see that performance live–oh, and a note Skyler Laine, this is how you sing “Fortunate Son,” you wicked little blasphemer), Mary Gautier (a sensitive and touching song about a stripper and the customer watching her? okay, then), and, of course, Dwight (the rent is too damn high!).
If you think my choices are too tame, well, next time I’ll throw out some of my favorite NSFW alt country faves, some of the good kick-ass outlaw stuff, the songs I don’t play for my innocent little girls, and that are the reason I’m glad my elderly mom doesn’t understand computers well enough to find my iTunes folders.
*John Prine is the Bob Dylan of alt country, a great songwriter with a nearly unbearable voice. For each, their songs can only reach their true potential when sung by others.
**In some ways, bluegrass really isn’t that old-timey, having emerged as a distinct commercial genre only in the late ’40s. But it derived from a hillbilly style that was born from the folk songs carried by the English, Scots and Irish settlers into the comparatively isolated Appalachian region and influenced by black musicians with the addition of banjos and the introduction of blues elements such as sliding from one note to the other and the classic call-and-response form. Bill Monroe, who’s credited with creating the genre, specifically credited Arnold Schultz as an influence. When you hear Monroe on his mandolin, Lester Flatt on the guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo you’re hearing the hundreds-of-years old echoes of British Isles peasantry, the equally old or older echoes of West African pastoralists, and the precise origin of bluegrass. And still there are folks who think globalization is something new.
Photo credit Micah Taylor, http://www.flickr.com/photos/micahtaylor/2741581392/