Saturday, July 22, 2017

Country Music

I have been away for a week, and am just putting these up now.  I have more to write about, but there is a lot to do around here.  Maybe tomorrow.

Unable to get my usual stations on a recent drive I listened to Darius Rucker’s country CD and a country station. Modern country music continues to have a deep separation from the older style. Even “classic” country music is pretty recent these days. More Leonard Skynard than George Jones. The modern examples are mere recitations of Southern icons.  Sweet tea! Sunsets! Live Oaks! Daddies! Bars and Saturday nights! And boots, boots, boots everywhere.  Ain’t we southern? Let’s work “Carolina” into as many songs as possible. Just make sure you’ve got that pickin’ style, bent notes, and the accent in there. There’s not much content, just a checkbox listing of Southern items.

I wonder what the equivalent would be for New England?  Many decades ago New England, especially Maine, also had country music, before Roy Acuff decided that Nashville was going to become not just a center but the center. Had all that played out differently, what would be New England icons songwriters would put in to show that they were real New England? To even make the list is to sound silly, because maple syrup, beans, or lobster don’t naturally lend themselves to any verse but comic. Cape Cod and Boston, maybe, but not much else conjures the way a hundred place-names in the south do. Part of that may just be volume. People from Vermont are gratified when entertainers mention them, but they applaud a bit and nod approvingly rather than whoop and holler. (Okay, some of the boys did whistle loudly and cheer but we pretended not to notice.) People drink in New England, and drink hard, but they don’t seem to write songs about it.  Check that.  Sometimes the Irish do, but we associate that with Irishness, not New England.

I’m not sure how you’d even write the song about how thoroughly New England your girl is, and every guy in the bar knows it.  Bean boots? Tough to dance in, but maybe if she’s just standing in line.  Ski boots, even worse, but skis might a marker.  My gal and her Rossignols.  Mother walks into the diner and orders fish chowder.  Walkin’ through the Berkshires, my Daddy told me… Hey, now, James Taylor did get “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston” in there. That’s a start. We have trains and people even ride them, but there aren’t any songs about “Waiting on the Old Acela Line,” nor does anyone think you are authentic just because you said “Acela.” Offer some guesses as to what this contrast means.

Country music used to be about stories, “three chords and the truth.” It was a first cousin to western music, and second cousin to folk music. It was an art of those writers and performers to get you to care, and deeply, before the first verse was over.  Its vanishing may be one more signal that the underlying Southern country culture is disappearing, leaving only a few decorative items behind. Many ethnic groups had celebrations when I was younger, but they eventually became hollow, dragging a few kids out and stuffing them in costumes and making them do a dance or two. A few foods kept alive. Pierogies.  Baklava. Corned Beef.

I wouldn’t think those country music images are going anywhere soon, and the underlying culture – whatever that actually is - will persist a while.  It’s a big area, with a lot of people in it, and there’s a pile of money to be made still. Yet it will be increasingly Disneyfied, celebrated in circular fashion for being itself.


Grim said...

My favorite thing about New England is beans for breakfast. I never see beans served with breakfast except in places like New Hampshire -- or Wyoming, where they are a very different sort of beans. But I like both.

james said...

Do rural New Englanders get looked down on?

Maybe part of developing a separate musical idiom comes from feeling like you're not part of the mainstream.

RichardJohnson said...

In my NE hometown, a classmate of my sister turned her family forested acreage into revenue-producing property. For example, she put in a petting zoo. The barn got turned into a C&W dance hall.

All I know about country music is that Bob Wills Is Still the King. Even Mick Jagger admits it.

Stay a Little Longer.

Featuring "piano pounder" Al Striklin: Trouble in Mind.

Over the years, in expressing my enthusiasm for Bob Wills, I unearthed some interesting connections to Al Striklin, one of Bob's "piano pounders." The father of a student of mine went to school in Cleburne with a son of Al Striklin. For years on Friday nights I met a group for drinks at a local bar. One of the group was an eight-something guy whose primary money earner was renting out houses he built himself. Call him a cantankerous libertarian. For decades, he played sax in a dance band- until shortly before he died. One time when I talked about Bob Wills, he told us that when his band played in the Dallas area, the band often used a replacement piano player from the Dallas area, who used to play for Bob Wills. By deduction- Cleburne is not far from Dallas- that replacement piano player must have been Al Striklin. (who died in '86- so we are talking about YEARS ago.)

Regarding current music, I have no idea.

RichardJohnson said...

do rural New Englanders get looked down upon?

I went to regional high school in NE. Those from the host town looked down on those from my more rural, less affluent, less educated hometown Dumb farmers and such. It still goes on, I hear. That's OK, I can say "suburban shitheads" right back.

And I did feel pity for those whose neighbors were a hundred feet or less away, whereas mine were a quarter mile or more away. I could walk out my parent's door and walk east or west for a mile before I hit a road. When I got within 40 miles of Boston I started to feel claustrophobic.

I learned a valuable lesson from it: we all from in-groups and out-groups. None of us is free from prejudice.

Sam L. said...

What about Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant"? Admittedly, it's a one-off, one-of-a-kind of which they-ain't no-more, but...maybe?

Grim said...

The same album has a nice bit called "the motorcycle song." It's more folk than country, we might say today, but it's very plausibly a kind of northeastern Outlaw Country. It's of the same generation as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, or even Johnny Paycheck; actually, Arlo was a bit younger than them.

Grim said...

Watch it here with the story that he tells about it, and you can see it's more hippie than Outlaw; but it's still kind of Outlaw.