So I’m a DJ now. Started a DJ gig at the Aristocrat Lounge: Strange Country. Yeah, yeah, DJing takes lots of talent, but it seems like there are a million soul DJ nights going on in town, and I wanted to do something different. I chose the name Strange Country not because I’d be playing novelty records all night, but in honor of Billy Strange, session guitar player extraordinaire who played on the coolest Lee Hazlewood albums, and a million others from country and western to pop to rock n’ roll.
Calling it Strange Country would also maybe help to signal that I wasn’t going to be playing I Walk The Line. We all love Johnny Cash, but let’s be real – Johnny Cash is to country music as Bob Marley is to reggae at this point.
But like Johnny Cash, Billy Strange was a cool dude. Anybody who played on These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ would pretty much have to be. He was a serious hepcat, and he also played country music. A lot of people don’t seem to know that country music can be cool, too. Or at least, it used to be.
I’ve accumulated a lot of country and western records over the years, and this was easy, because most people didn’t want them. If you read the interview I did with Walter Daniels from a few posts back, we both talked about our days working in record stores, how country music wasn’t appreciated by many in the indie rock and punk rock world.
My alienation served me well, however, because I’ve been able to pick up lots of country records cheaply since the Sonic Youth fans were too square to know what they were missing. If you are reading this, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, but if there’s one thing I’ve found from writing shit on the internet, it’s that all kinds of crazy people might end up reading it. Hey, this might be news to some of them, if not you!
Today we are in the middle of a “vinyl resurgence,” but country records still don’t have the cachet of something with “northern soul” or “popcorn” in the ebay description. That’s fine with me. Even while the price of vinyl in other genres gets ridiculous, most country records are still inexpensive. Perhaps that is because country music has a bit of an image problem. Why might that be?
We’ll examine it in excruciating detail after the jump! For starters, most popular contemporary country music is terrible – Florida Georgia Line? Taylor Swift (if she is even still considered country…)? C’mon. I don’t listen to country radio but I sometimes read the blog Saving Country Music just to keep up on how bad a once-vital American musical tradition has gotten. Short answer: pretty bad.
When the likes of Ted Cruz are making transparent pandering statements to appeal to country music fans, it just reinforces to me that the perception of the average country music fan is that they are not the sharpest tool in the shed. It’s like one of Ted Cruz’s campaign staffers put a hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
Of course, most music that’s mainstream and popular is pretty terrible at the moment, regardless of genre, so judging the state of contemporary country music harshly just because of the banality of its most mainstream examples might be unfair. Unfortunately, even a lot of the music presented as an alternative to popular country is not that great, either.
There sure are a lot of overly earnest folksy singer-songwriters out there, keeping it safe. “Americana”? Even the name is lame. There are also a lot of “alt-country” types who have maybe listened to the outlaw country of the 1970s, but they don’t bring anything new to the table except for artisanal beards or a nice pearl snap shirt collection.
This is partially why I wanted to focus on pre-outlaw country. Sure, I love Waylon Jennings, but how about a little pre-beard Waylon for a change? I feel like, if singer-songwriter Americana or neo-Outlaw country is supposed to be the cure for mainstream country, the cure isn’t much better than the disease.
This is one of the reasons I wanted to start a country DJ night – so that I could curate a selection of country artists and songs that might rearrange people minds when it comes to country music. Challenge their preconceptions a bit. Country has always represented the American rural identity, which has never been considered cool, right? Except, for a spell there, it totally was. Country music was once as hip, in its own way, as the Beatles, Miles Davis, or the New York Dolls. Most people today have a hard time imagining such a statement could be true.
Country is a lot more varied, and draws from a much wider variety of sounds and styles, than most people give it credit for. I love raw, old-timey country music. Hell, I covered traditional banjo standards, Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole on my newest record. But country music isn’t all raw-boned banjo and fiddle players, there is also a history of slick, uptown jazz influences, and loungey vibes.
Country music often gets burdened with the curse of authenticity, but for every genuine coal miner’s daughter like Loretta Lynn, there was a neon cowboy who had never spent a day in the saddle. A lot of the great western artists from the 1950s, whose popularity peaked at the same time that television westerns were massive hits, were cowboys as real as those cowboys on the small screen (as in – not very real at all). But mythmaking and artifice can be just and interesting as authenticity, sometimes.
For Strange Country I wanted to delve into this side of country music, too: the jazzy loungey side, the fake 1950s cowboy side, the 60s space-age side. Mid-century modern country.
A lot of people don’t think about how much jazz is in country music, or appreciate the amazing musicianship that went into much of it. Currently country music, both of the mainstream radio or Americana-alt variety, is completely devoid of jazz influence. Has Bob Wills been completely forgotten? Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant? Their lightning-fast instrumentals sound like a crazy combo of jazz, country, and Warner Bros. cartoon sound effects:
Or the sophisticated pedal steel jazz of Buddy Emmons? Emmons is all over Ray Price’s classis album Night Life, which is a swinging, smooth, jazzy, and adult look at the after-hours world:
The Coen Brothers knew country pop like the Sons of the Pioneers was hip enough for opening scene of the Big Lebowski:
And how many people know it was a country session cat, Grady Martin, who first recorded with fuzz guitar? On a slick Marty Robbins number, no less:
There are fuzz guitar country tunes with riffs as nasty as anything on Back From the Grave! The greatest radio station in America, WFMU, compiled an essential list of ’em. Check out the scorching solo slipped into this Kay Adams truck drivin’ tune:
When the likes of Ted Cruz think of country music, do you think they have in mind something like Dallas Frazier’s The Conspiracy of Homer Jones? It’s a funky ode to a farmer who finds out his wife was foolin’ around with the hired hand, so he kills them both, and then flaunts his crime in front of the neighbors at church because they can’t prove he did it. Family values!
Everybody knows Ennio Morricone is the greatest film score composer of all time, but even though he made his name with his scores for Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns films, country and western music doesn’t get much credit as an influence in his style. In addition to making heavy use of fuzz guitar, which appeared first in country music, you can also detect other traces of country and western in Morricone’s output. For example, check this Hank Thompson tune:
And compare it to part of Morricone’s score to Once Upon a Time in the West:
I could go on and on – I haven’t even gotten to Lee Hazlewood or Roger Miller yet!
There was a hip underbelly in country music even as it was also marketed as the safe, God-fearing, family loving music of rural hearth and home. Oddly enough, the artist who best represents both sides of this dynamic in country music – hip as fuck, but also corny and hokey and willing to shamelessly pander to the moron demographic – is Buck Owens.
In part two, I’ll look at what made Buck cool, and the decidedly uncool career choice he made that threatened to completely overshadow his reputation as a serious country music artist.