May 6, 2010

Earlier this year, I posted a blog on who I thought to be the 10 greatest Metal bands. I enjoyed doing so, and now I feel like doing the same for a few other genres. Today I’m going with the often maligned genre of Country music. I mentioned in my Metal article my history with the genre, so why not do the same here?

Well, prior to my early teenage “metal” phase, I was strictly a country music fan. I probably listened to predominantly country music for 3 or 4 years, ending by middle school. I jumped away from it, probably because most of it wasn’t any good. Looking back now, most of it wasn’t; sadly, much of what comes out as country music on the radio is crap: repetitive, ignorant, over-produced, under-thought…all of the things that too many people think of when they hear about “country” music. But I’m writing here to refute that. To refute that fallback answer that too many pop music fans give to the “What do you listen to?” question that prompts them to say: “Anything but country.” That answer writes off a lot of good, essential, necessary music. You can’t write off the entire history of country music because of Sugarland or Big & Rich, anymore than you can write off metal because of Limp Bizkit, Rap because of Gucci Mane, or Rock because of Nickelback.

Country Music was a leg of the foundation for all  popular music to come after it. It’s half the foundation, the other half is the Blues. Both Country and the Blues tread largely the same territory from only slightly different vantage points. They employ different textures, varying sounds, and different vocabularies, but they run so close together that it’s hard to picture the existence of one without the other. Jazz, Rock, R&B, Soul,and Hip Hop all flow out of the foundation built by Country and Blues. Gospel breathed in and under the whole affair, but Secular and Popular music of any stripe owes Country and The Blues quite a large debt.

The deluge of commercial country crap forced me away from the entire genre. Then I discovered “Alt  Country, or “No Depression” music. This stuff emerged in the eighties and nineties from punk, indie, and alternative rockers who discovered a truly “alternative” integrity and voice from country music. As outsiders to the sound, they made it with Rock and Punk sensibilities, but usually what they produced was closer in spirit to true Country music than anything on Nashville radio. Great artists from this sub-genre are: Son Volt, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, Old 97s, The Jayhawks, and Neko Case, to name just a few.

Through that, I learned to appreciate the sounds and qualities of good country music, which led me to re-evaluate pure country music and find out that a lot of classic, older country was as edgy, entertaining, relevant, and as excellently played and produced as anything in classic rock’s history.

So here I go; I’m not an expert in Country, but the following artists are the ones I feel to be the most important, essential, and entertaining musicians in the history of the genre.

1) Hank Williams

Hank is the undisputed champion and founder of all that Country music came to be. He “lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful memory behind” as a later country song opined. The ballads (“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), honky-tonk (“Honky Tonkin,” Move it On Over”), novelties, and blues adaptations he performed became the first major classics in “modern” country music and the string of performances he tore through that were over so quickly due to his early death inspired every artist in the genre thereafter. His son’s music’s a bit lacking (but highly popular), but his grandson (Hank III) keeps his memory alive.

2) Loretta Lynn

Whether “Fist City,” “The Pill” “Rated X,” or “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn never worried about putting herself completely into her songs no matter what sensibilities or feathers it might ruffle. She was (and is) Appalachian to her bones, brave, fierce, fighting, yet loyal, honest, and caring. Her music gave voice to a region and a people so often ignored, yet she voices her songs so individualistically that it’s clear she’s her own woman and not a spokesperson. She’ll advocate from the point of view she comes from, and she’ll go against that when she feels she must. Tammy Winette might have sang that she’d “stand by her” cheating man, but Loretta let the listeners know she wouldn’t take any crap. With the help of the White Stripes’ Jack White she proved herself still relevant with 2004s “Van Lear Rose,” and though few modern Country Music women (or men)  live up to her blazing blueprint, it’s hard to imagine the success of any of them without her paving the way.

3) George Jones

George Jones was the most consistent and powerful voice in mainstream Country music for about 30 years (1957 to 1987, give or take). His voice, through every change it’s overuse took it through, always sounded like the epitome of Country. Every label change his career took him through resulted in another batch of hits. Though his party songs (“Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night”), goofy novelties (“White Lightnin”) and Grand Ole Opry Pleasers (“Race is On”) were great, his specialty was always the blues-country ballad. No one can sing a more bone-chilling and heart-broken country ballad than George: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” etc.

4) Johnny Cash

Cash is one of the biggest giants of popular music from the 2oth Century. Those far outside of Country’s usual audience will readily acknowledge an affinity for the person and at least some of his art. Cash is beloved by both Gospel listening grandmothers and punk rock teenagers, and for good reason.  At his best, “the man in black,” showcased every aspect of his humanity– his spirit and love of God and his brokenness and flaws. There are 3 great Cash periods of recordings: his Sun recordings in the late fifties (“I Walk the Line,” “Get Rhythm,” etc.) with the band and the chugga-chugga sound; his late ’60s Prison Concert albums (“Live at Folsom Prison,” “Live at San Quentin”); and his Rick Rubin produced American recordings which stretched on for 10 years and showcased vital and personal songs even when they were covers, right up to his death.

5) Willie Nelson

The history of Country music seems to lend itself to a cycle: mainstream builds to a formula, innovators flee the center and make music from the outskirts until a version of that kind of country matriculates back into mainstream country. Willie Nelson is the most notable of the “Outlaw” country figures of the ’70s. He went from penning hits that others sung (“Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline, to name one) to fleeing to Texas, growing braids, ingesting a massive amount of pot, and producing one of the finest canons in country music history. He’s done the excellent country concept album (“Red Headed Stranger”) successful duets (with everyone from his friend Kris Kristofferson to Ray Charles and Aerosmith), and a slew of hits (Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”). He took musical inspiration from everywhere: Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Spanish Mariachi, etc. He’s very eccentric, but as a musician can work with and appeal to folks from all over the musical and political spectrum without toning down his passions, concerns, or sensibilities.

6) Merle Haggard

“I’ll be honest. I hate “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Okie from Muskogee.” I can see they’re successful, well done, populist songs that a target audience ate up. Hearing later that “Okie” was done almost in jest, singing against the hippies from his father’s point of view rather than his own didn’t do anything for me in learning to enjoy listening to the song…but it did make me go back and dig into the rest of his catalog, and I’m glad I did. “Mama Tried” may be THE greatest country song ever performed. In fact, every song Merle sang about prison was phenomenal. Heck, every drinking song he did (“I think I’ll Just Stay here and drink”), working (“Workin’ Man Blues”), tearjerker (“If We Make it Through December”) and other song (“Daddy Frank”) he has done ranks near the top of it’s respective category. His Bakersfield California Country paved the way for Americana, roots rock, and country music to follow.

7) Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam became every rock fan’s favorite country musician in the eighties. But he made thoroughly consistent and true to form Country music, without much odd genre-mashing. Yoakam played hard honky-tonk tunes but he did so with such passion and authenticity that non-Country fans began to take note in rapid numbers. And he didn’t seem to care if the Nashville radio crowd wanted things done a certain way, he did them the way he thought they ought to be done. Though born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, he was living in the Bakersfield, California area when he began perfecting his sound, and it’s evident that the school of Merle and the other West Coast Country greats were his bloodline more than Texas or Nashville. “Guitars, Cadillacs, etc.” and “Hillbilly Deluxe,” earned him instant praise from country, rock, and college radio critics and fans in the eighties and were loaded with hits: “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Ways,” “Little Sister,” “1000 Miles.” Dwight has been surprisingly consistent, releasing great work every year or two, with or without mainstream attention and always without compromise. Even his album of cover songs, “Under the Covers,” is great, and the work he’s released in the past couple of years is just as enjoyable as his commercial highs in the eighties and early nineties.

8 ) Lyle Lovett

Lyle and Dwight can both be thought of in the same sentence for doing real, good, true, and exciting Country music at a time that mainstream county was on yet another major step to losing it’s way. Dwight kept the California Country Revival alive, Lyle came at you straight from Texas with boogie-woogie, western swing, ballads, Mexican influence, pop sensibility without contrivance, and some of the best written lyrics for country music songs in years. Lyle’s debut and it’s follow-up “Pontiac” are country music masterpieces, and he kept going with pretty much every release that followed. His songs veer from novelty pop (“An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy,” “If I had a Pony”) to chilling character-study ballads (“Pontiac”), to strong reworkings of American traditionals (“Ain’t No More Cane”). Lyle has one of the best voices in Country music history, writes some of the best lyrics of any genre, and always heads a terrific band (“it’s not big it’s large”) which manages to work sounds not usually found in the genre while still being unadulterated country.

9) George Strait

Okay. When the nineties country music popularity was at a zenith, and cheesy pop was the under-girding of the entire affair, a few neo-classicists kept a grounding on the real deal, most notably Alan Jackson and George Strait. I was never a fan of Jackson, every time I almost liked him, I’d hear the cornball factor creep into the song and lose my taste for his entire work. Strait can get cheesy too, but not as often. I guess it’s a toss up, but I opt for Strait here. He knows how to be subtle, to play forceful songs with graceful understatement, even when the lyrics and tone cry out for hyperbole. He’s a Texas musician through and through, and while everyone else was doing the “boot scootin’ boogie” or stomping in Nikes about their “Achy Breaky Heart,” George was singing “All My Exes Live in Texas,” “Ocean Front Property,” “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” and “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?” Grown folk songs about real life issues, played beautifully on the guitar and sung sincerely.

10) Steve Earle

Earle bridges the gap between pure country and alt country; he’s that middle point that fans of either can use to cross to the other side and learn to appreciate both. “Guitar Town,” and “Exit 0” progress through roots-rock edged country music and “Copperhead Road,” his commercial hit, layered electricity and energy over the whole affair but remained country at its core. When Earle wasn’t having legal or drug problems, he spent the nineties pushing the experimental boundaries of Country music and then reverbing back to pure bluegrass, folk, and Americana. His later work over the past few years (aside from a terrific and straightforward Townes Van Zandt tribute album) has delved into modern social protest tunes.


3 Responses to “Country.”

  1. […] 29, 2010 In keeping with the thread that included my Hip Hop^, METAL!, and Country. articles, I decided to do one that focused on a decade rather than a genre. I think the ’80s […]

  2. chris said

    Great list, but Big John Cash needs to be higher-up…like right after the Great Hank. Great as the Possum is, I think we could all agree that Cash has far wider appeal and a bigger artistic legacy.
    Also: where’s Townes?

    • dmhamby2 said

      I agree that Cash is probably the best after Hank…this list at the time was meant to be chronological a bit, like the best in order of the era of the highlights of their career; Townes is great too and for songwriters certainly, but as an overall performer he just missed the cut for me.

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