Thursday, 10 January 2008

No. Country Not For Old Men.

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

I have a very particular problem to discuss with you all today. The problem usually occurs at parties (don't they always) when a sufficient amount of alcohol or similar intoxicant have been consumed to render intelligent philosophical discussion impossible. In situations such as this, the human mind defaults to subjects on which everyone can chip in. Football promotes too much argument, so people talk about music. The conversation begins when someone says “So, what sort of music do you listen too?”. I dread this question. Usually I mumble something involving the words “Smiths” and “Beatles” and then I drop the bomb: “...and I really like country music, actually”. There is always a silence. Sometimes a glass smashes in the background for dramatic effect. People look at me quizzically, and I can see them forming a mental picture of me in a cowboy hat twirling a lasso and shouting “yee-ha”. People seem genuinely terrified that I might whip out a concealed banjo and instigate an impromptu ho-down. And therein lies the problem: I then have to explain myself and defend a musical genre that has really done nothing wrong except be usurped by hicks. So I've decided to write this piece; partly to educate, but also so I can hand it round at the aforementioned parties, should I ever be invited to one again.

There is a very definite split in the history of country music, and this split occurs in 1971 when Don Henley formed The Eagles and made country music a monolithic marketing opportunity. Before this there were The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and after that there was... The Eagles. And a lot of money and record producers with dollar signs for eyes. This is where the problem comes from: when hearing the words “country music”, people either think of the twangy Rockabilly of Hank Williams or the awfully overstated drunk-rugby-player-friendly nonsense of people like Kenny Rogers. This is all twee, vacuous rubbish. This is most definitely not what I mean when talking about country music. I also don't mean anything to do with vaguely homo-erotic Marlboro adverts and white cowboy hats. Anyone who wears a white cowboy hat has less brain cells than fingers. Fact. No, what I'm talking about here is a music that is much more to do with story-telling and tales of the prime human drives of love, death and getting thoroughly out of ones skull. What, I ask you, could possibly be finer?

My personal country music hero is Gram Parsons, a man who lived life as fast as any rock star, died young like all the best ones and along the way wrote some brilliant songs on the above subjects, and many more. The guy once spent a month or two living on Keith Richards' sofa after quitting the Byrds in protest over their decision to tour apartheid South Africa. This, my good people, is the sort of lifestyle and principle missing so sorely from the modern music scene. Whilst with Mick and Keith he turned the stones onto country music, and is thus owed more than a nod for albums like Let It Bleed and the last few songs of Beggars Banquet. This, I think we can all agree, is something of a point in favour of country music.

As all good forms of music should, real country also pisses off your parents. Or at least, it damn well should. I sometimes forget that the biggest selling album of last year is by a heroin addict who isn't even that talented. If you wanna argue about that, go find last years album by Sharon Jones. Then come back and tell me I'm right. But I digress. In 2005, a study by the American Public Health Association (yes, they really took time out from studying fat people to do this) revealed that drugs and alcohol were referenced in over one-third (37% if you like numbers) of all country music songs, second only to rap and way more than rock, pop or heavy metal. I'm not saying that doing drugs and drinking lots make you cool but... they do.

More recently, there's been the aural horrors of Sheryl Crow or (shudder) The Dixie Chicks to contend with. It really annoys me that I have to use the phrase “alt-country” to describe artists who are essentially “real-country” while the 2007 Country Music Awards featured Kenny Chesney and a selection of other people who could not have been any more of a bad country cliché had they been twirling lassos. I want my genre back, damn it, I won't use genre labels that sound like they come out of the same marketing box as “space-punk” or “astro-folk”.

I guess really the point of all this really is that I don't know why people are so down on country music. Once you look past the veneer, it's bloody good stuff. Neil Young is a guitarist who can play lead as well as or better than just about anyone. Johnny Cash wrote songs that would make many singer-songwriters (how I loathe that term) turn slightly green with envy. David Crosby seems to be regularly credited with having the best weed ever to hit LA. There's nothing missing that you could desire in a musical genre. Except maybe pounding baselines and, let's be honest here, there have been very few techno remixes of country songs. It's a genre where sadly the shit has floated to the top, but dig a little deeper, and there's plenty to discover. Why not consider investing in some proper country, just to test my theory? Then we can talk at parties. Wanna be mates?

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