I visited some friends on a long roadtrip this summer, and they weren’t enthusiastic about the songs on my playlist. I said I would try to put together a CD to share my enthusiasm, and this is what I came up with.
It’s a huge challenge to define what is “country”, and I am both underqualified and opinionated (it would be a far better world if those two “qualities” were not so often found together). Artists you wouldn’t necessarily think of as country have certainly played with the genre. The Beatles did “Rocky Raccoon”, the Stones did “Wild Horses” and “Roses on Your Grave”, and much of Neil Young and Bob Dylan could fairly be claimed by country imperialists.
Country is kind of a feel thing, at least for me. There may be musical experts out there who have a firm definition and articulated standards for making the call, but much of what I lump into the category might be termed folk rock or even Southern rock by other people. Some of the things that push me toward counting something as country are instruments, themes and the prominence of vocals. Steel guitar is a big factor. I love the instrument, and its appearance makes me lean toward counting a song as country. Lots of blues songs veer mighty close to country in my mind because I lean that way. Harmonica is another instrument that I associate with country, though I’ll admit that it probably pushes more toward the blues.
Banjos make me think of folk music, but if there’s a banjo in a song and it’s not folk or Bela Fleck, I’m likely to lump it in with the country category. It’s part of the rural sensibility and down home roots of country.
Lyrics and vocals make a big difference too. Country songs tend toward the mournful or rowdy. While a lot of rock songs present a wall of sound with sometimes indistinguishable lyrics, most country songs let you enjoy the words, and they are frequently compelling.
There are classic themes of country music. Perhaps you’ve heard David Allan Coe sing about the perfect country and western song requiring lyrics about mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. That’s pretty good satire because there is so much truth to it. A lot of country music is about broken hearts, bad luck and loneliness. One of my friends described country as “whiny music” and said that it’s about people blaming others for their problems. There some truth to that charge, but I haven’t convinced myself that the symptoms of self-pity are any more severe in the world of country than they are in jazz, singer-songwriter rock, or, certainly, the blues.
I should include a note about tempo. Most of these songs are slow songs. There are plenty of fast-paced, danceable country tunes, but it’s my own personal flaw that I lean toward the easy listening side of the dial, with songs I can sing along to in the car. So sue me. On to the music.
Flowers and Liquor, by Hayes Carll
The first song is a cheerfully horny little ditty by Hayes Carll. No great meaning here, but the song is welcoming and bouncy, infectious and cheerful. Hayes Carll has a broad range, and he can bring the honky-tonk or bring you down with a sad song. He also puts on a heckuva good live show.
Flowered Dresses, by Slaid Cleaves
I mentioned earlier that I have a bias for the slow songs, and this song is one of my faves. I love this song. It’s love gone wrong seen through the eyes of a boy who loves his mother. Sappy? Oh, hell yes, but I think it’s well done and some of the lyrics are brilliant. “She stopped dreaming her dreams, and started dreaming his.” And I can really belt it out in the car.
Cigarettes and Wine, by Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell has a great story. Hard living and raucous, he got kicked out of the Drive-by Truckers because of his addiction-fueled misbehavior. That’s kind of an amazing thing. The Drive-by Truckers are famously rowdy. Getting kicked out of that band for misbehavior is kind of like being expelled from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for being preachy or from the Tea Party for hating black presidents. Fortunately for Jason, he found a good woman and a calmer life. His newest album, Southeastern, is his best yet. He still sings his old rowdy songs (we saw him perform about a month ago), but he’s apparently not living them anymore. And his song “Elephant”, about a friend dying of cancer, is too damned honest to listen to.
I Don’t Want to Die (in the Hospital), by Conor Oberst
“I Don’t Want to Die” is a new song, but it sounds to me like something you might’ve heard in an Oklahoma Armory show back in the early 60s. Frankly, this isn’t my favorite facet of Country, but it represents a fun but dark nod to some rockabilly roots.
When You Get to Asheville, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
“Love has Come for You” is a collaboration album of Steve Martin (yes that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell. I could’ve picked any song from this album and been just as happy. When I first heard it, I thought it would take a crazy optimist to believe that anything better would be released in 2013, and unless something miraculous happens this week, I think this is my favorite new music of the year.
The Heart that You Own, by Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam brought twangy to LA and introduced it to rock. This song sounds mighty good in the car, and I even karaoked it once in a New Orleans club. The pleasure of singing this song was worth the complete forfeiture of my dignity.
Whiskey Bottle, by Uncle Tupelo
Son Volt has an expressive guitar and a classic growly, whiskey-soaked country voice. Can you imagine being his high school career counselor? “Dude you’re going into country music.” “But I want to be a neurosurgeon!” “Nobody wants a surgeon who sounds like he’s been hung over for five days straight. You’re going to be a country singer.” “Well, all right.”
Dallas, by Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore is the real thing. He headed out onto the road a couple generations ago and he has kept a Texas country style alive. He belongs to a group called the Flatlanders that not only puts on a great show, but it represents a piece of Americana to me. It’s tempting to think of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders as a museum piece, but they still put real heart and current soul into the songs they sing. I would encourage you to see them the next time they come through your town, or anywhere near.
Mama’s Eyes, by Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle is the son of Steve Earle, an aging political troubadour who never achieved quite the acclaim he deserved. Justin inherited his father’s musical skills, but, fortunately, avoided his father’s somewhat grating voice. Remarkably, I saw Justin Townes Earle the same night I saw Jason Isbell for the first time. Our seats were a few feet from the stage; one of the advantages of alt.country over more traditional pop or rock is that the concerts are cheaper and smaller.
Getaway Car, by Slaid Cleaves
This song will remind you of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, but that steel guitar cuts straight through me. And I can crush this song while driving, plus I sometimes I add an awesome (to me) harmonica track.
The Weary Kind, by Ryan Bingham
For a few years straight, we went to Colorado around Labor Day with friends. We were walking down the street in Breckenridge when our friend noticed a flyer outside a bar listing Ryan Bingham as that night’s entertainment. He had heard of him, so we decided to go. Small, basement room with maybe 50 people in there, and the show was absolutely triumphant – probably the best live music experience I have ever had. The audience handed the band members shots of whiskey, and the whole thing was a blast that went on and on. Finally, the show ended and I found myself taking a leak in the restroom, and the drummer was at the next urinal, when we both heard the guitar start up again, and the drummer sighed, “He’s having too much fun to let it end.”
A few months later, Ryan Bingham won an Oscar for this song, which was featured in the movie “Crazy Heart,” about an alcoholic country performer living a gritty life on the road. The following year, the same week, we and the same friends went to see Ryan Bingham at Red Rocks, opening for Willie Nelson. Not quite the same intimacy, but another great show.
Still be Around, by Uncle Tupelo
You might recognize the voice a slightly younger Son Volt on this track. Uncle Tupelo was an influential band that helped develop the genre of alt.country. The guitar work and gritty lyrics still sound great years later.
Copenhagen, by Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams has one of the sexiest voices I’ve ever heard. When she sings a sexy song like “Righteously”, it shouldn’t be played in mixed company. Even a gigantically spiritual song like this sounds like pillow talk. I just read an article the other day that traces the birth of alt.country to the release of her first album. That’s one of those arguments that music critics can amuse themselves with, and I don’t care. Just let me listen to her sing.
Two, by Ryan Adams
Here is another famous addict singing a song that features compelling ambiguity. “I’ve got a really good heart; I just can’t catch a break. If I could I’d treat you the way you’d want to be treated, honest.” He’s just a great singer and performer.
She’s Got a Crush On Me, by Paul Thorn
Paul Thorn might be more justifiably considered singer/songwriter rock, but the guitar work emboldens me to claim it for my preferred genre. It’s just a beautiful song, and Paul Thorn is one of those performers who is so charismatic and sexy that if Robin left me for a seat on his tour bus, I don’t think I could hold a grudge. Keep an eye out for this guy in your town and definitely go.
Georgia On My Mind, by Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson is the genuine article, and a couple dozen songs could take the place of this one on this CD. He has certainly done whatever is necessary to be commercially successful, and yet he still retains that essential dignity of being an American original. If you paid him enough money, he would cover “Thriller” and do the dance, too, but beneath the money machine is a true country heart that ticks like a metronome.
A Better Place, by the Setters
I have arrived at an age where I’m not looking for philosophical/spiritual truths in lyrics written by twenty-something-year-old musicians, but this song really nails a lot of what I would like to say to the all the friends I’ve had. It’s beautiful, even though I (surprisingly) don’t sing it all that well.
So, that’s my intro to country. You just have to like some of this.