Roots Watch: Lights in the Country Tunnel?
A half-year in which such major contributors, true giants, as Kitty Wells, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson are suddenly no longer with us (among too many others, it sure seems, lately), could produce a major case of seasonal distress disorder in itself for a lot of us, Meanwhile, so many have been taking to the net and what other media are left (another story) with their own, usually similar sorts of blues for the current state of contemporary country music. Can’t we at least replace some of that thin and thumping, clichéd list-making, chest-beating posturing (and that’s just the women; sorry, couldn’t resist) with some thicker sort of thumping and posturing based on fresher lists? I mean, it’s nice to see a hit that moves away from auto-pilot references to Johnny Cash to a fresh reference to Bruce Springsteen, but I suspect that record would be an easier fit on a rock chart if that chart wasn’t so late-stage sick itself. (Blake Boldt captured some of the ongoing unease nicely this week with his basically positive Underwood review that notes the record won’t “assuage the fears of those who are concerned about the state of country.”)
Well, I don’t want to overstate the case–easy to do, given, a) the slow pace of releases that could serve as evidence pro or con and b) a possible dose of wishful thinking on my part—but I might be detecting early signs of a shift towards more substance in content, and a more robust and convincingly “genre’s own” mix of sounds traditional and contemporary in at least some new country records this summer.
The new Alan Jackson, for instance. I know, I know; he’s been more substance-oriented and more interested in mixing the traditional with the contemporary than most for the past couple of decades, but what’s interesting, I think, is that having gone more independent with the new Thirty Miles West CD, he turned to his maximally-talented nephew Adam Wright (and Jay Knowles) for what’s now the video single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Any More,” one of the more gripping, specific, fresh and potent country songs I’ve heard in some time now, utterly unmistakable as country. Listen to it; that’s a real-life situation and feeling that’s fresh in song. What a concept! Shawn Camp and Chris Stapleton songs are on there, too; the latter’s “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song” being a particularly novel piece of reincarnation. I like that Jackson’s looked to a younger generation of writers in their prime—family included—and especially the result. Writing with his son Bubba has worked some recent wonders —if not necessarily commercial ones—for George Strait, too, witness last year’s “Drinkin” Man,” a hard-hitting song that couldn’t be further from the overworked “Why Can’t We All Just Get a Long Neck?” par-tay beer mode. (I demand, by the way, a five-year moratorium on all song references to beer. There are other ways to go: “This vodka will rockya.” “A guy likes his rye.” Anything. Try water; the Sons of the Pioneers did.) But I would encourage more performers to look to members of their family who happen to be talented. Worked for Earl Scruggs and it can work for you.
Also: An advanced thumbs up to some releases on the way that will remind people that substance and identifiably country sounds—not all retro and over-self-conscious, but understanding what tones are available form country old and new, are on the way in the weeks just ahead—from Easton Corbin, from Joey + Rory, to an interesting degree from Love and Theft, and, oh yes, from Waylon Jennings. The current country chart is still chronically devoid of female presence except in groups, but some of the youngest men in the Billboard Top 20 are ones who’ve shown a proclivity for content and sonic surprises (Hunter Hayes, Brantley Gilbert), and some of the established acts are those who’ve shown strong leaps into surprise and harder country from time to time.
And then there’s something I’ve noticed in the image-making department, which, things going as they do now, may tell us more about what country music marketers are thinking, and where things may be going, than the songs or sounds. Both Edens Edge and the even newer songwriter-rich band The Farm, are repeatedly depicted with one or more members of each trio grasping instruments—banjos, fiddles and guitars—which they actually play. If this signals—and the sounds further suggest that it might—an attempt to pick up musically where the Dixie Chicks left off on chart country, musically, and in perception and presentation of the acts as committed country music makers—that could be significant.
Fo now, these small signs all seem like light at the end of the tunnel from here. If that’s just a train coming at me in the dark, well, there’s always room for trains in country.
- bob: Thanks Barry. Just reserved the Adam Gussow book. Sounds interesting.
- Barry Mazor: It may be over-stated, in arriving at practically a single explanation of everything, but Adam Gussow's book on lynching and …
- Leeann: Wow! Heavy topic and horrifying indeed! "Beer for My Horses" was all fun and games until that reference, I'll have …
- Barry Mazor: Everything else aside, the way that reporter fills us in, with must-have, pointless generational snark included, about who this "Little …
- luckyoldsun: "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" seems to be about a lynching--even if there's something about a judge …
- Arlene: Sorry. I meant to give the link for "Supper Time." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ58Kfe41kI
- Arlene: Another song sung by Ethel Waters: Irving Berlin's "Supper Time"
- bob: Powerful songs. I read the book "A Lynching in the Heartland" by James H. Madison about a dozen years ago. …
- Ron: Sky Above, Mud Below by Tom Russell is another.
- Jack Williams: Another Othis Taylor song from White African is "My Soul's in Louisiana."