By Caspar Salmon | Music | March 26, 2009 |
By Caspar Salmon | Music | March 26, 2009 |
I know what you’re going to say: what the hell do you know about country music, Caspar? Well, I… You’re just an effete English douche-snob, who’s never even been to the States and can’t situate Kentucky on a map. Yes, but I think that… And you know what? You enunciate like Emma Thompson and you’re lousy in bed. Jeez, will you give me a break? That was a low blow.
I take your point, though: I’ve lived in Europe all my life, and the closest I’ve been to Texas is Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean. Yet - I realized at a country clubnight I went to recently and danced so hard at that I nearly had a coronary — country music speaks to me in a way I find quite difficult to explain. I love the elasticity of country singers’ voices - the twang, and the drawl. There’s twang in the guitar, too: in the finger-picked guitar of bluegrass and the woozy hum of pedal-steel. Twang too in the fiddle and the banjo, and something resembling it in mouth-organ. I love the beat of country music, too: like Motown, I find that the rhythm of honky-tonk has a rhythm to it that just makes me want to get up and dance — likewise the pounding rate of a hoe-down.
More than that, though, I love the way Country seizes on place - the way it captures America and describes locations. The sound of Country mimics movement: Waylon Jennings’ song ‘I’m A Ramblin’ Man’, for instance, has a beat you can only march to; Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ has the chug of a train; Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ starts with a thrillingly high peal of guitar that imitates the whistle of a train even as he sings, “The first thing I remember knowing/Was a lonesome whistle blowing/And a young’un’s dream of growing up to ride”. Others have seized on the train - Laura Cantrell with ‘Yonder Comes A Freight Train’; Elizabeth Cotton with ‘Freight Train’; Hank Williams with ‘Pan American’ - you thrill to his joy at this journey through the southlands to New Orleans. And then there are all the highways — as sung by Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe. Shit, the Highwaymen themselves — country music’s big supergroup. I respond to the sense of freedom inspired by the USA — that desire to just get up and go.
So many songs talk about that: the singer as vagrant, desiring a life elsewhere; a hankering not to be tied down. Here in London I can hardly pay rent, and the daily commute on the Underground can get really claustrophobic — so when I get that hankering to get the hell away, I listen to John Prine and Melba Montgomery singing “I’m gonna get on that old turnpike, and I’m gonna ride/I’m gonna leave this town” on the wonderful ‘Milwaukee, Here I Come’, or the Be Good Tanyas as they sing of their ‘rambling blues’ on their song ‘The Littlest Birds’:
You pass through places and the places pass through you
But you carry them with you on the soles of your travelling shoes
There are so many other vagrants in American song: Ryan Adams in ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, singing ‘what compels me to go?’, almost in bafflement at this nature of his, or perhaps at the nature of the country itself, that it makes a person like this; or the disillusioned lovers of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me And Bobby McGee’, travelling to New Orleans. I think this is to do with a sheer sense of possibility in the States. There seems to be a sense that you can just up sticks -that this land is your land, as Woody Guthrie put it, and will welcome you wherever you go. Britain hardly inspires that thought: I can think of only one famous English song about travel, and that’s The Divine Comedy’s ‘National Express’. Named after the main British long-distance bus company in Britain, it is a song of misery and discomfort:
On the National Express there’s a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
How pathetic is that ‘crisps and tea’ line? It makes you want to never leave your home. So why do English people not celebrate their land? We have a few old folk songs about place - ‘Loch Lomond’, and ‘Scarborough Fair’, for instance. My grandfather was fond of a song called ‘My Orcha’d In Linden Lea’, written by William Barnes and set to music my Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s a lovely song, about the freedom of the country fellow, and his simple life amongst nature:
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water’s bubbling in its bed;
And there, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.
But that’s about all that we have. British folk music traditionally is more about people, as its title says: its stories, of characters like Sweet William and Fair Ellen, or Barbry Allen, are tales of love and death, mostly. I think British people recoil a little at describing the countryside and its simple charms — there is something a bit chocolate-boxy about it, something saccharine. American singers don’t give two shits about sentimentality, as we’ll see - and congratulations to them.
The difference is that the discovery of America — with the advent of transport — is still recent enough to exist in song and be handed down — Stephen Foster’s civil war-era song ‘Oh Susanna’ has a character coming from Alabama, travelling around the country with his banjo; it feels almost as old as the country itself. The notion of the States as a utopia has existed in song since so many white people came over from Europe to colonise it. The old Europe has already been discovered and sung/celebrated many hundreds of years ago by our painters and poets (the Romantics, for instance, travelling to Wales and the Lake District). America’s writers mostly stuck to the city, I think, and left the adventure to the rambling singers, the ‘wayfaring strangers’.
Also, it is difficult to idealise Europe — after all its wars, imperialism and the Holocaust, the notion of a country belonging to us and giving us hope and succour through times of need, simply isn’t sustainable. Crucially, this is where the one difficulty of country music arises from: the racism and bigotry of the South. Country music is tied to that sense of ownership — the land belongs to the white man, who may use it and travel in it freely as he pleases — and has often neglected its kinship with black music (although Woody Guthrie recognized it, and performed with Leadbelly). Steve Earle mentioned in a very moving interview in Pitchfork recently, that he has to fight his own racist instincts as a Southern man. He himself was on the end of some hatred for performing with an integrated band. The reaction to the Dixie Chicks recently showed up the hate of the South, its misogyny and xenophobia, and unquestioning nationalism. They punctured that magnificently on ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which takes wicked delight in unpicking the myth of the holy, charitable small-town America.
In fact, country music has a very honorable tradition — besides the redneck drivel of such piss-mongers as Toby Keith - of dissent. Talking of puncturing small town America, Merle Haggard has an affectionate swipe at middle-America parochialism in ‘Okie From Muskogee’, singing as in the voice of a sneery square: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take our trips on LSD”. Waylon Jennings’s song ‘America’ refashions the ode to the nation as a pan-racial anthem, claiming the land for people of all colour, and sweetly contains the line, “The Red man is right to expect a little from you”.
The counter-points to these songs of adventure and rambling that I mentioned earlier, are two-fold: first, there is the female country music of the home. Saddled with children, and frightened to ramble amongst men, the woman has often sung of her home, and her difficult relationship with the wandering man, from Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ to Loretta Lynn’s ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinking With Loving On Your Mind’, via Lucinda Williams’s song ‘Greenville’, with its main character “looking for a fight with a guitar in your hand”. Later, Lynn sang joyously of ‘The Pill’ and its liberating effects on women - no longer just the hard-headed woman at home, the young woman like Jolie Holland or The Dixie Chicks (on ‘Long Time Gone’, for instance) can also dream of travelling and taking in some adventure of her own. The second counter-point to the adventure-country song, is the prison song: ramble about and fuck about too much, and you land in jail, like the character in ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, or in Jimmie Rodgers’s ‘In The Jailhouse Now’. It was no coincidence that Cash recorded an album in prison - this is a real trope of country music, an inverse of the songs about freedom and discovery: being alone in a cell, for crimes committed in the name of masculinity.
What’s great with country music is that place is not just connected to adventure and travel - it is also the home, the childhood. This is where the sentimentality I mentioned earlier on comes in. Home is what Dolly Parton thinks about when struggling in New York, on ‘Tennessee Homesick Blues’; it’s the crickets and crab-traps of the Mississippi river for Shelby Lynne on her swoonsome ‘Where I’m From’; it’s the muddy feet and mother’s cry of dinner for Jimmie Rodgers on ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’. Think also of the sea for Jesse Winchester on the beautiful ‘Biloxi’ or the sound of rain on tin roofs for William Elliot Whitmore on ‘Lee County Flood’. Some of my favourite country songs give a real sense of home like this - all of Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is evocative and nostalgic of the south around Pontchartrain, its sights and sounds; Devon Sproule’s album Keep Your Silver Shined is bathed in the late afternoon sunshine of Virginia. These things are what allow country stars to grow old gracefully (Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings) unlike rock stars (Mick Jagger): the mature old man who has given up his rambling ways for the sweet idyll of home, or the woman looking back on her life, are subjects that rock could really learn something from.
There is no such music in Britain: we aren’t sentimental or idealistic enough to talk about our childhoods in song. We don’t celebrate our country because we’re embarrassed, and because, frankly, it’s not that great: your mountains are higher, rivers wider, valleys lower, cities more diverse. Heck, we haven’t even got a desert, unless you count Cornwall - and that’s just a cultural desert. This is why I feast on American country music, besides just being in love with its twangy, whiny sound: the travel gives me a sense of escape, and that yodel reminds me of home.
Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as “enigmatic.” Read more about him at his blog, Straigh Outta Crouch End.