Monday, August 21, 2006

Why I Like Country Music

Well, just sitting here with no pants on, watching Dog the Bounty Hunter on TV. It’s been awhile since I posted anything. Got myself into a short work gig that’s been nonstop, very intense Excel work from the second I sit down in the morning to the second I leave. Ergo, I haven’t had much urge to be around computers after work. On top of which, when I have, I’ve been engaged in a few big MP3 projects with various folks, which tend to take a lot of organizing, leg-work and CD-burning.

One of the fruits of those MP3 labors has been acquiring a “Top 500 Country Songs of All Time” batch of MP3s (courtesy of Lonesome Ray) based on a magazine article from a few years back in which critics went to town with their top choices. Being that the list is from critics, some of the choices are just ludicrous. Pop bands from the 60s with their one or two country songs. Soul songs from the 60s, too. That’s a real no-no for me. Partially because there’s no way you can draw an easy line – literally every soul singer of the 60s has at least a handful of songs, probably more, that you could notice the song has all the trappings of a country ballad, save for the instrumentation and arrangement.

My problem is that most critics tend to favor a reverse racism, in that when they’re queried to write about “Top 500 Soul Songs of All Time,” you can bet your sweet ass there will not be one white country artist on that list. Not even Tony Joe White doing “Polk Salad Annie” – which is a soul song, and perhaps the best "grunting" song. I’d write this down more to critics being candy-assed rejects than the fact that a lot of 60s soul and country was interchangeable, and one of the greatest crimes of the past 30 or so years has been the separation of color musically, with all of us being instructed to worship black music unequivocally as the cultural voice of a people (it isn’t), and view country music as the domain of hillbillies and, well, guys sitting around their houses watching Dog the Bounty Hunter with no pants on.

Most of that 500 song set is stunning, and put together with another collection of roughly 500 songs my friend P.J. and I threw together a few years ago on our own, and it makes for one intriguing overview of country music, from the mid-1920s through today, although, admittedly and much to my chagrin, the list thins out greatly from the 1980s onwards. And I’m wondering if that’s more because we’re also being trained to see older country music as the only kind that matters, whereas anything more pop-tinged from the 1980s onwards is somehow tainted. Granted, when I watch CMT and see all the Oprah-style issue songs and material geared towards sassy middle-aged women who think they know more than you ever will, I get kind of sick. But if I hang around long enough, there will always be some song that isn’t so bad, whether or not some cardboard cutout with a cowboy hat is singing it. Chances are, that guy’s a front for some very good songwriters and some deeply talented studio musicians who’d never have a hit these days under their own auspices.

Why do I like country music? I’m not really sure. That wasn’t always the case -- my liking it at all as opposed to not being really sure. I’m under the impression that anyone under the age of 30 who likes country music is just weird. It’s a music not meant for young people. Like the blues, it’s meant for people who have done some living, who have lost as much or more than they’ve won, who understand that there is very little heroic in life, that it just goes on, and you live it to the best of your abilities. Pop music is about firsts – love, the exhilaration of experiencing things for the first time, even the morbid fascination with various forms of heartbreak, nay, the wallowing in heartbreak and depression, as best exemplified by the truly shitty grunge rock trend of the early 90s. Grunge rock killed hair metal? What a fucking shame. I like hair metal more than I like grunge rock. At least those guys were honest about their shallowness, and were smart enough to have as much fun as possible before it all caved in on them.

A movie like Garden State, replete with its hip indie rock soundtrack, perfectly underlines the division I sense between pop and country. I rented the movie on DVD two days after my father died. And short of putting my foot through the TV screen, let’s just say I thought the movie was a load of twentysomething, navel-gazing shit. A shiftless, guy in his early 20s with mental problems meanders home to New Jersey when his mother dies. The movie’s about how he deals with his mother’s passing? No. It’s about this weird little twerp falling in love with a future mental patient, while he pals around with a hometown friend who is literally a ghoul with his gravedigging job that finds him robbing corpses. That’s cool? That’s zany, funny, hip stuff? I just put my fucking father in the ground. You put a parent in the ground, the thoughts and emotions centered around that act dominate every second of your life for days, in my case months, on end. Every inch of that movie felt like a lie. It still does. It had nothing to do with the stark reality of a parent’s death that I’d just experienced. That guy's dead mother was just a morbid after-thought to his self-realization hijinx. Real life aint like that -- unless you have no heart.

(Sidenote: that same night, I rented Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I laughed my ass off at a time when I really needed it, and am now a big Will Ferrell fan. I thought Talladega Nights was brilliant – it set its sights low, and hit every mark along the way. Maybe not a work of genius, but a deeply funny flick where you know exactly what you’re paying for, and it delivers.)

The pop music in Garden State drove home the self absorption and shallowness. A lot of pop music, while pretty and fun to listen to (I do it all the time), is basically heartless. Or more to the point, the people writing and singing the songs haven’t lived enough to convey any real depth of emotion in their art. The music tends to be excellent. But they play at being heavy, or cynical. Hell, I did the same. But I grew out of it, or more specifically had life beat it out of me. That’s what life does when you live long enough. In one sense, it makes you harder, but in another, it opens you up. Being hip and cynical is fun, but sooner or later, shit, where’s the beef? As life goes on, you want to have people in your life you can count on, more than you want people who entertain you, and vice-versa.

And I guess that’s how I came to like country music. It means what it says. Even when it’s lying to you, it feels like it’s telling the truth. Kevin Russell, co-lead singer of The Gourds (my favorite band), called it White People’s Soul Music, and he’s right. I tend not to like country music that doesn’t convey any sense of soul. As noted earlier, switch over to CMT and you’ll get a healthy dose of that. I’d say commercial country music tends to be just as if not more cynical than all the awful little hiphop acts parading around with their faux gangsterism, much less whatever junky faux-punk crap kids are listening to these days.

But every now and then, they get it right and cut through all the bullshit. I wish music could go back to the early days of rock, up through the soul and country of the 60s, when a lot of the music, given a different arrangement, maybe a mandolin and fiddle instead of a horn section, was similar in ways that seem very distant now. People mourn the rock and folk of the 60s, but from a musical standpoint, they’d be better off mourning the 50s, about 1954 through 1960 or so, when the great blues and country artists were going full gun, and younger guys like Chuck Berry and Elvis were pulling as much from both sides and incorporating it into rock. That must have been a time, and if I had my druthers, I’d go there much more than musical place in the 1960s. As it is, I can play that music now, especially the country stuff, and hear a purity of purpose, and a sense of soul, that’s hard to find in most pop music. You think rock is the hardest music ever made? Then you haven't really heard the blues. Nor any number of country songs that nail the hardness of life in ways pop music will never get anywhere near.

1 comment:

Drooch said...

At first I thought your rant on "Garden State" would have made a good post on its own. Then it hit me: The way to make that movie actually funny would be to re-score it with some old classic country songs. That would truly illustrate the shallowness and utter futility of that movie.