My first awareness of what music was, was a cousin sitting on the front porch of my grandparents house in Spartanburg, South Carolina, playing away on an enormous guitar and singing in a voice which was not pretty, but made you listen.
I might have been all of seven years old, but I remember that his voice was not pretty, as well as I remember the realization at that moment–an early epiphany you might say–that music was made this way. Somehow this had escaped me until an age well after Mozart had written his first symphony. Before that, music was something that emitted from the radio.
I soon identified this music with the stories my grandfather told on that very porch. It was not self-conscious. It was not pretentious. Later on, I would come to appreciate the human values it placed out front and without irony. I have loved country music ever since.
But the first music I actually chose to listen to in my teenage years was show music from Broadway musicals. All that singing was attached to stories and in the words you could make out a great deal of what was happening without ever going to the theatre. We had a collection of that at home in Larchmont, and there were no country music stations in New York in those times. My parents were fond of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and the big bands of the forties so, naturally, I learned to appreciate those as well.
I first learned about Buddy Holly from my brother. He practiced the guitar for hours and, unlike my sister’s piano practice, it never irritated me. At the homes of friends I first heard the Beatles, but it didn’t speak to me as it seemed to speak to them. Some of the girls I pursued liked folk music and I wasted more than a few hours enduring that. When I mentioned that the better folk songs reminded me of country music ballads, I was told they were not the same and that I needed to learn something about music.
This was a hopeless idea, even if very true. I had no facility with music myself. I simply enjoyed listening and what I liked to listen to most were the ballads. The stories.
In college I was introduced to classical music by a roommate. I discovered Beethoven and a new world in Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius. While playing that music, I was able to write. I was undisciplined and the music kept me in place long enough to finish more than I otherwise would have. Sometimes I put a country record on my old KLH turntable, but my roommates were not amused.
Thankfully another good friend introduced me to the blues of Robert Johnson. But blues has a way with the psyche of a young fellow. You start to feel older than you are and write stories about things you never did.
Later, playing country music in my Boston bookshop meant enduring a constant stream of comments from customers and more directly, from the employees who were being forced to hear it as they worked. I came to understand the prejudice against Country music during those years–rejecting a great deal of it myself. Too much of it was over produced in a Rhinestone Cowboy kind of way and directed at a ‘cross-over audience’ which had no interest in much more than a beat and an obvious sentiment. This seemed an unpardonable compromise to me as a young man, as did so many other accommodations and concessions the world demanded. I was told my writing did not fit accepted standards as well. There was little patience for the ballad. Johnny Cash seemed to be ok to some people. A few accepted Patsy Cline. George Jones was a hard sell to the Boston sophisticate.
I have probably spent more hours listening to country music in the four years since I closed my bookshop than in the thirty years previous. It has been a revelation.
That world has grown. There are more fine Country singers today than ever before and the writing is often sheer genius.
And as it always was, it is the story that I love. The ballad that stretches back to our cultural roots. The simpler the better. Love, loss, longing. And a good melody to tie your ears back. No matter where your ancestors once danced around the fire, the stories were told.
About three quarters of what is played on country music stations is crap. That’s to be expected. It’s the same with almost any other musical genre except Classical–but that is because most of the classical we hear today is what has survived the hardest test–time. The ‘modern’ classical music which is forced on us by government grants and the intelligentsia and inserted between the Bach and the Rachmaninoff, has driven that audience to near oblivion. (Aw, cut it out. It’s true. It’s just not politically correct to say such things in this oh so ecumenical world). I can only hope there is a new day for such music. Maybe it will rise from the movie scores that seem to be the last vestige. But that’s another essay for some other time.
The part of Country music that I love is not consistent in its arrangement or production. Much is nearly spoiled by the same over-the-top or aesthetically blind values which ruin much of modern life. But the part that’s good is good enough.
Importantly, there is a wide range of opinion as to just what ‘Country Music’ is. It’s true of anything worthwhile. It bespeaks the depth and the complexity of the genre. What does a ‘Boy Named Sue’ have in common with ‘Ring of Fire’?
Alan Jackson is as fine a troubadour as ever sang a ballad, but George Strait got the title song and Ernest Tubb was the original. Jennifer Nettles can sell me any song she sings. Faith Hill has become the sweet muse of Tim McGraw. Keith Whitley knew the value of the unspoken word and Brad Paisley knows when to dance. I know this moment in time will be brief. The hucksters will ruin country music like they did rock and roll–but then, they have been trying to do that for a long while now and Country is as good once as it ever was.
If I was lost on a desert island with a solar cell and an I-pod, I would have to have my Beethoven, and Robert Johnson, and Ella, and Frank, but I would need these songs as well:
- Remember When–Alan Jackson
- When You Say Nothing At All–Keith Whitley
- I Need You–Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
- We Danced–Brad Paisley
- I Walk the Line–Johnny Cash
- Crazy–Patsy Cline
- Smoky Mountain Rain–Ronnie Milsap
- Today I Started Loving You Again–Merle Haggard
- Stand By Your Man–Tammy Wynette
- He Stopped Loving Her Today–George Jones
- Blue–LeAnn Rimes
- Love Me Tender–Elvis Presley
- Amarillo by Morning–George Strait
- Always on My Mind–Willie Nelson
- Your Cheatin’ Heart–Hank Williams Sr.
- I Hope You Dance–Lee Ann Womack
- Faded Love–Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
- King of the Road–Roger Miller
- The Devil Went Down to Georgia–Charlie Daniels Band
- Georgia on My Mind–Ray Charles
- I Will Always Love You–Dolly Parton
- Help Me Make it Through the Night–Kris Kristofferson
- Making Believe–Emmylou Harris
- Amanda–Waylon Jennings
- Delta Dawn–Tanya Tucker
- Desperado–The Eagles
- Breathe–Faith Hill
- Blue Moon of Kentucky–Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
- Hello Darlin’–Conway Twitty
- Gentle on my Mind–Glen Campbell
- Walking the Floor Over You–Ernest Tubb
- The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia–Reba McEntire
- El Paso–Marty Robbins
- Should’ve Been a Cowboy–Toby Kieth
- Green, Green Grass of Home–Porter Wagoner
- Elvira–Oak Ridge Boys
- Coal Miner’s Daughter–Loretta Lynn
- Make the World Go Away–Eddy Arnold
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken–Carter Family
- Kiss An Angel Good Morning–Charlie Pride
- Ode to Billie Joe–Bobbie Gentry
- Foggy Mountain Breakdown–Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
- Independence Day–Martina McBride
- Before the Next Teardrop Falls–Freddy Fender
- Behind Closed Doors–Charlie Rich
- Colder Weather–Zac Brown
- Love Hurts–Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris
- Slumber My Darling–Alison Krauss
- Just a Dream–Carrie Underwood
Now you know I’ve left someone off my list, so I’ll add them later after running the heel of my hand upside my head; and you understand that every one of these singers has another song or ten that I love nearly as well, and some of them I truly like more than others in a pinch, but today these are my picks. And for country music–still free to roam in a pre-ironic and unselfconscious universe–every road does not lead back home, and the Very Last Country Song has yet to be written.
Photo by flicker member whittlz