Saturday, 1 June 2013

In which I get a little country - and love it!

So I'm in need of some music to while away a journey away from Milton Keynes. And, in a fit of curiousity I choose a selection of 40 classic country hits. Quite why I did this remains unclear but I was reminded again how our judgemental nature means we miss out on some great stuff.

I'm not entirely sure as to the point when we began to look down our noses at country music. Nor am I sure quite why this approach was taken - maybe it was the mawkish lyrics, rhinestones and oversized hats or perhaps there really is something wrong with the actual music (if there is something wrong with the music it's probably its simplicity and accessibility that we dislike rather than the tunes - the tunes are mostly fine).

By 'we' I mean the musical commentariat, the sorts who talk as if the Ting Tings play great music or who want to impress by attending concerts from bands we'd all forgotten about. And it seems to me that country music's greatest failing - and perhaps the reason for its lasting success as a genre - was that it didn't target young, middle-class, with-it kids. The music - its sound, its words - quite consciously cross the barrier of age:

You placed gold on my finger
You brought love like I've never known
You gave life to our children
And to me, a reason to go on.

So sang Don Williams back in 1975.  Not a song about first love or the search for love but a remembering, looking back at a life and at the reasons it was good.

The second reason that country music meets with a sniffy response is that it's a working class music that lacks any sort of call to arms. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of politics in country music but the story telling is more often about experience rather than challenge. When Dolly Parton sings of the coat of many colours that her momma made for her, she tells a tale of poverty lived and poverty conquered:

But they didn't understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

This acceptance of life's rubbish - poverty, ill-health, injury, war, divorce, death - runs as a theme through country music.  Accompanied by the constant reminder that family, community and god are important. And that a warm heart and a welcoming hearth are the bedrock of society. What there's precious little of in country is the sort of self-aware political point-making that is so common in other genres. The singer tells a story, sets it to a simple melody line (often played strict tempo so you can dance to it), tugs a little - but not too much - at the listeners heart strings and leaves behind a tear, a smile or both.

Perhaps there's a little room in our hearts for these songs. Certainly, for all the schmaltz, all the maudlin words, they stick in your memory. Having picked up those 40 Country Classics, I found there wasn't a song I didn't know and many where I could have a stab at both the tune and the words. Not sure you can say that about Indie Rock!


1 comment:

asquith said...

I can't claim to know much about country but it's interesting that many of the musicians I listen to are fans of the genre, including ones whose own music sounds nothing like country. So it can't be that bad.

What interests me is the interface between country and rock. Do you know Gram Parsons? I got into him through Elvis Costello, who is a favourite of mine.

I mainly listen to heavy rock but I'm sure a lot of this stuff is perfectly good. I'd never sneer at anyone for having a musical passion even if it was for a genre totally different to mine. It beats having a half-arsed attitude to music like most people do.

BTW, a lot of these trendy "indie" bands (the term they use to describe themselves begs the question of what exactly it is that they're independent from, or what "alternative" bands are the alternative to) are known in the trade as "landfill". Sums them up perfectly imho.