Twangin'!

IMHO

=+= Some Call It Country =+=

By Aaron A. Fox


Rec.music.country.western can be a dull place, but whenever Aaron Fox rides into town like some Internet version of Shane, a real intellectual badass wordslinger, things start hoppin', let me tell you. He riles people up and starts some discussion there for a change. Country fans with more than on their minds than Garth Brooks' eye color, disc jockeys with a wide knowledge of country music both old and new, even Austin musicians fer pete's sake, have been coming out of the woodwork to sit on the virtual porch and shoot the breeze.



After a year away from this newsgroup, I tuned back in last week. Seems the big argument is about whether John Berry or John Michael Montogmery is "more country." Can't resist inserting my own musicianly and intellectual two cents into the dispute. As Ranger Rita so succinctly says: Gimme a break! And as a redneck musician I know once said, "there damn sure ain't no such damn thing as 'FM country music,' buddy." (cleaned up for mass distribution.) Where it's at up here in the great Northwest, (my new home and damn I do miss Texas) as it used to be and still is in a lot of other places, is on *AM* radio. That flat mono timbre makes the core audio experience of good country music come alive -- the voice, the words, the feeling for the genre that comes from growing up in the tradition. The treble edge on the steel guitar and the scrape of a fiddle bow and finger picks on banjo strings, not booming bass drums electronically sampled and triggered. When you hear country on AM you realize it's about the singer and the song and not the audiophilic surfaces of Mall Country. My favorite AM station up here played, in the last hour: Merle Haggard -- Johnny Cash -- Del Reeves -- Flatt & Scruggs --Jim Wallace (the featured artist of the evening, believe it or don't) -- George Strait (yes, that's right) -- Kitty Wells -- Lynn Anderson. I don't think the DJ would know who Berry or Montgomery are. All this without a trace of hip irony (I like Dwight too, the guy's a genius, but BTW he played Led Zep in his high school bands and opened for X in his formative years -- first saw him at a punk club in London, so I mean, *come on,* it's very arch, a brilliant joke of sorts); and without a trace of commodified sentimental this year's poster-child electronically enhanced aurally-excited quad-sound sampled and digitially-edited sounds-just-like-his-TNN video Top-40 surface-worshipping hats-boots-and-WWW-page slickness neither (hey, I played that shit for a living for the past four years, so I got a right, I say). And none of this "classic country" formula either, as if country was some kind of mausoleum of mummified pharoahs named Haggard & Jones -- worship the names, don't buy the records or learn the style and you'll be a star kid. Not that I don't worship at their temple, but for all the nostalgia and past-worshipping that goes on in the country biz, I should point out that I personally know a lot of amazing older country singers, some of whom could sing circles around any of the hat acts, working as mechanics and truck drivers and roofers and waitresses, and a few one-time stars of high caliber talent actually living on welfare and forgotten by the biz and the fans. They all feel like country has only got room for pretty kids, and that country fans -- the ones the Nashville biz is interested in anyway -- have no respect for elders who have spent decades mastering nuances of craft and style and art that all the hats in the world can't replace. I mean, for example, Mr (OOOOOO it's GAAAAARTH) Brooks has got only one register: full-on foot-to-the-floor-too-many-cry-breaks- in-the-wrong-places-with-no-emotional-nuance. And Berry and Montgomery are just second-rate imitations of Brooks. These boys have no sense of play with the dynamic shaping of a song. They sing bombast only suited for arena shows and FM radio, and completely in-your-face coming off a beer joint jukebox. Garth sounds like he's sobbing all the time. Jones doesn't do that until the END of a tear-jerker, thank you very much. And he doesn't do it on up-tempo songs. Compare "The Dance" to "Hello Walls," "She Thinks I Still Care," or even "The girl wearing nothing but a smile and a towel on the billboard in the field by the side of the big old highway." Wit, playfulness, command of an expressive range, a sense of WHEN to open all the stops. Exceptions as singers: Strait, Jackson, Travis, Loveless. But their material and their production and their ceaseless cult-of-personality marketing is hideously tiresome. Not that it would matter a whit if the beer joint/VFW live country tradition was healthy, because that is FOLK music, a valuable American roots music, a heritage for working-class people that ought to be around when the kids awash in Billy Ray and "Please Don't take the Girl" (or whatever that was called) turn into adults who wonder where they came from culturally and the "country boom" is ancient history replaced by whatever Adult Contemporary becomes next. (I suspect it will sound like Pearl Jam and Snoop Doggie Dog, the process of aging being inexorable. That's why it sounds like the Eagles today, though some call it "country.") But the tradition is not healthy (though the wondrous rise of Don Walser and Junior Brown and the return of Johnny Cash to hip status bode well), because working-class communities are not healthy. None of us are healthy, come to think of it. America had country and the blues and polka and zydeco and conjunto and now we've got "product" and a postmodern simulacrum of a transnationally mass-mediated replace-it-before-it-wears-out-lock -your-doors-and-turn-on-the-satellite-TV/VCR hole where our culture used to be. They still CALL it country music, but it sounds like suburban television Red Lobster on every exit music to me. And to my working-class redneck friends too. Thank God and Hank Williams that there are still a few beer joints. I know the counterarguments -- I've rehearsed them in my articles and sometimes I can convince myself that this is simply the bourgeois cult of authenticity speaking through my mouth, (keyboard?). (You know, the *European* market, where the streets are paved with gold for washed up American singers and people pay $100 for your used 501's and a working-class American's yearly income for a pre-CBS Fender guitar while real country musicians wear clothes from Wal-Mart and play guitars made in China). Walser himself told me last month that he's happy as a pig in shit to finally hear his yodelling magic coming off a CD with beautiful "separation" in full enhanced stereo, and selling a mess of copies too. He says he wishes Bob Wills was around to record with "some of the new technology we've got" and I must say I'd be on line to buy that CD the day it came out myself. I bought Don's of course, though I still prefer all his earlier cassette releases, recorded live at the once and former Henry's Bar on Burnet Road with Jimmy Day on steel and Skinny Don Keeling on bass (Watermelon felt he wasn't good enough for the CD, can you freakin believe it??? The guy never misses a note or a gig. But on a CD the bass has to sound like a freakin Godzilla footstep comin at you and Skinny Don just plays 4/4 with a light touch and makes it swing). I'd rather hear Don at Jovita's (Austin: South 1st and Mary St., great Enchiladas, outdoor patio and cheap beer) with Jimmy and Don, or Scott Walls or Bert Rivera on steel and Howard Kalish on fiddle. At these shows, anybody might just swing by and sit in and the band will be delighted and play something they haven't programmed into the computerized mixer and light controller and digital effects sequencer the Montgomery and Berry would be lost without. Shoot, Don Walser can hold an arena crowd spellbound with just an acoustic guitar -- I *saw* him do it opening for Johnny Cash in December -- shitty mix, awful lights, the usual treatment the local opening act commands, and the crowd (half redneck and half grunge kids, who love Don) wouldn't let him go offstage. So maybe I'm nuts, but one Saturday night in a Texas beer joint with no windows and canned beer only (bottles can be used as weapons) listening to Larry Hopkins sing "These Hands," or Randy Meyer sing "The Way I Am" or Justin Trevino (no relation to Ricky "I'm learning Spanish as fast as I can" Trevino and proud of it) singing "Soft Rain," and I FEEL the truth of what I'm trying to articulate here, unhip as it sounds. I know Marty Robbins and the Hag and Ray Price were as commercial in their day as Berry and Montgomery are today, and that there are thousands of working-class kids messing around with the guitar chords to "That Summer" (or maybe not, but at least the Achy Breaky Inky Stinky Fart). But more of them are singing "karaoke" country to preprogrammed badly recorded backing tracks by studio hacks (well, the original tracks were cut by studio hacks, they just had more chops) and reading the lyrics off preprinted song sheets rather than studying with a master singer for years and reading lyrics inscribed on their hearts the way the older generation of masters did. They're getting culturally ripped off, they just don't know it yet. Somehow it's slipped outta gear -- like so much else about our culture and society. And no amount of European Airplay and Bear Family boxed sets and "Tulare Dust" is gonna bring it back. And damn it makes me sad. Even mad. And I'm from Boston. So what the heck do I know . . .? But it seems to me that "real country music" is about the conditions and contexts in which it occurs, the kinds of lives it articulates and informs, the participatory solidarity of a beer joint rather than the consumer fantasy of the high-tech entertainment center. No matter WHAT it sounds like. It's just more likely to sound like AM than FM, and more likely still to sound LIVE rather than recorded, sold, consumed, and replaced. It's likely to have a beer belly and some gray hair. It's likely to involve a good old friendly argument and maybe one or two beers more than you SHOULD have had, according to the new capitalist puritanism. Go out and hear an old nobody singer in your remaining local redneck beer joints, blues clubs, conjunto bars VFW halls. Funnel half the money you'd spend on Berry CDs or Bear Family boxed sets (depending on what kind of "country" fan you consider yourself to be) into a few cans of Milwaukee's Best and a homemade tape album and a $2 cover at a place with no windows. Focus on the nuances of style and craft that old overweight out of shape singer spent a lifetime developing, go talk to them after a show and tell them they moved you, hire them to play at your wedding. Patronize the advertisers on local AM country stations. Buy my book . . . (just kidding, it's not out yet, probably be another year.) Seriously, a few of us could make a difference, maybe. And you might hear real art coming at you. And you might be shocked and transported by it. Hey, it's possible.



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