Scanning the Countryside: Country—and All That Jazz

Barry Mazor | February 16th, 2011

There have always been some who see country music and jazz as opposite ends of the American music spectrum—one down home, emotionally straightforward and inclined towards the well-understood and safe; the other urban, sophisticated, even intellectual, and born to go off on unfettered, exploratory tangents. You could, of course, hear that opposition expressed by fans of either sort of music to describe why they’ll have nothing to do with the other. The often beautiful truth, though, is that these two largely domestic products have been bumping into each other and dating seriously, if not going steady, ever since both became more defined commercial styles in the 1920s.

From the jazz band backing on a fair number of Jimmie Rodgers records, and his famed duet with Louis Armstrong through the country breakdown/jazz intersection in Western Swing in the thirties in the hands of Bob Wills and Milton Brown and Bob Dunn, the jazz ties in improvisation and putting the sounds first in bluegrass in the forties, the turn to more complex stringed instrument stylings in the hands of Easterners like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Jethro Burns into the fifties, and (in one of Nashville’s worst kept secrets) the many top-line country instrumentalists who’ve played jazz gigs by night ever since, there have been very substantial, ongoing country-jazz connections and conversations. The obvious-enough jazz vocal and guitar leanings of a Willie Nelson were underscored in his 2008 collaboration with Wynton Marsalis; Merle Haggard accented his own long-standing jazz leanings in his 2004 album Unforgettable—and that “Night Life” Ray Price has been singing about for decades is a notably jazzy one.

I mention all of this because this year is shaping up as another prime time for some very nicely varied country/jazz encounters. An excellent case in point is the just released Countrypolitan Duets CD from the skilled, smart, clean Nashville jazz vocalist Anna Wilson and a few of her “friends,” who happen to include Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and Billy Dean, as well as such veteran country hands as the previously-mentioned Mr. Price, steel guitar great Lloyd Green, Kenny Rogers, and the inimitable Connie Smith. These are smooth, fluid, unmistakably jazz-based takes, sometimes with a full, hot horn section, alternately stinging and moody guitar, pace-setting piano, and choral group back-up, on country standards from “You Don’t Know Me” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” to “Cherokee Maiden” and “For the Good Times.”

Anna Wilson & Connie SmithI promise you that Connie and Anna’s swinging turn on Ms. Smith’s 1972 hit “Just For What I Am” will grab you, take you to school on what the jazz touch can bring to a country tune and sentiment, and remind you all over again what an extraordinary on-point, vocalist Ms. Smith has always been, with immaculate diction and control that transcends genre. (For all of her predilection for traditional country, Connie’s also expressed her admiration for such singers as Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.)

Anna Wilson was also among the songwriters represented on the 2007 jazz-centric release from Suzy Bogguss, Sweet Danger. One of the most arresting things about that collection is the way she was able to blend jazz vocal tone and mood with country storytelling you can still follow, in such cuts as “No Good Way to Go” (written by the talented Guy Clark partner Verlon Thompson) and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.” It used to amaze and puzzle hipster friends of the Be-Bop jazz saxophone icon Charlie Parker that he would listen to country radio when out on the road, and he famously explained to them “It’s the stories, man. Listen to the stories.” Yet the jazz equivalent of the flow of a story is most often the flow of rhythms and tones and chord changes, not plot—so it’s much to Suzy’s credit that country and jazz strengths come together there.

Jazz and country share some common history, in that both have sometimes buried ties to very old school American show business, in the music of the minstrel shows and vaudeville, of Tin Pan Alley composers and sentimental pop parlor songs. Those connections will be on display, marvelously so, in the album-length collaboration coming in mid-April from the Del McCoury Band and the national treasure Preservation Hall Jazz Band, American Legacies. It’s a revelation to hear the similarities in manner and approach to the phrasing and vocal flavor of Del himself (always a declared fan of the blues) and PRJB lead singer and sax man Clint Maedgen on such tunes as “Jambalaya,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Sugar Blues” and “One Has My Name,” all given the traditional New Orleans jazz treatment. The instrumental chops of the whole McCoury gang throughout the disc will remind you that mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle were all jazz instruments right along with the brass before the recording industry generally separated them into rural and urban musical divisions. Here they are again, and it’s a blast.

Coming in March is a quite different jazz/country variation, the much-anticipated Buddy Miller-led guitar hero collaboration, Majestic Silver Strings, with, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, all modern guitar stylists who’ve had hands in country (or Americana) camps and jazzier ones as well, and vocalists to match, including Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris, Patty Grififn and Julie Miller. Previewed in a Nashville show last year (and at the Country Hall of Fame), this album will offer often laid-back turns on country standards, including “Why Baby Why,” “Cattle Call” and “Dang Me.”

That tradition of bringing some post-twang, multi-chord complexity to country guitar is getting some additional, and fine attention right now. Jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli has a second of two recent salutes to Western Swing, cowboys and country music in general out now, Back in the Saddle Again (by “Buck” Pizzarelli). The personable and very knowledgeable David Anderson, who greets and serenades virtually everyone who visits the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda with guitar requests (and continues that tradition of playing Nashville jazz clubs nights) is letting loose a new collection Countrypolitan (don’t let the familiar title confuse here) featuring atmospheric, expertly picked electric guitar collaborations on sometimes jazzy, yet clearly country, instrumentals with Nashville A-Team legend and Country Hall of Famer Harold Bradley. And say, if you want to hear another classic country guitar A-Teamer in his lesser known jazz mode, check out the sides uncovered by Hank Garland, who’d nearly secretly take off for New York to jam with Charlie Parker and other be-boppers.

If after all of this new evidence, you can still find country and jazz the unconnected outpourings of different planets, you just haven’t been paying sufficient attention, cats!

  1. Bob
    February 16, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Great article. I love Suzy B’s “Sweet Danger” album and her earlier “Swing” cd which was produced by Suzy and Ray Benson. I heard about the Anna Wilson cd. Now that I know it’s out, I plan on buying it.

    I’m currently really enjoying little known country singer/songwriter Georgia Middleman’s 2008 cd “Things I Didn’t Know I Knew” which her website describes as jazz and pop influenced. The cd includes Reba’s “I’ll Have What She’s Having” which Georgia wrote with Jimmy Melton. Another favorite of mine is “Stay In Touch” written with James Slater. Apart from this cd her best known co-write is with Radney Foster on Keith Urban’s “I’m In”.

  2. Dave D.
    February 16, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Another recent case in point is Dale Watson, who now has a weekly “Honky Tonk Swing” residency at the Highball in Austin.

  3. Miss Leslie
    February 16, 2011 at 10:09 am

    If you go to the International Steel Guitar convention in either St Louis or the Texas convention in Dallas you will hear a lot of jazz. I see a lot of instrumentalists migrate from form music to a more freeform style like jazz. It seems to be a natural progression for many.

    @Bob – Georgia sings harmony vocals with Radney on his live shows and I sure enjoy both her voice and her stage presence. According to Radney’s bass player, Georgia’s quite the sought-after co-writer.

    @Dave – curious as to whether people put swing and jazz in the same category. I don’t.

  4. Barry Mazor
    February 16, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Swing was, basically, the name for jazz during the period, beginning in the 30s, that it managed to be pop music for a while–and that’s true whether it meant Duke Ellington or Bob Wills. And the term still gets applied, reasonably I think, to music patterned after the style of those years.

    I’m reasonably sure from previous conversations with him that Dale Watson’s use of the word is no different…

  5. Jon
    February 16, 2011 at 10:45 am

    I see a lot of instrumentalists migrate from form music to a more freeform style like jazz. It seems to be a natural progression for many.

    Yep.

    curious as to whether people put swing and jazz in the same category. I don’t.

    I do, more or less. Historically that’s where swing came from, and I don’t know that it’s really developed a distinct identity – which is not to say that a hybrid form like western swing hasn’t. Hmm, I wonder just what “honky tonk swing” is, aside from being the title of a Bill Monroe mandolin tune ;-).

  6. Miss Leslie
    February 16, 2011 at 10:55 am

    @Jon – Swing v. Jazz – I know that they are both freeform styles, but swing, to me, is more distinctive and stays to a form. And – maybe, as you say, I am thinking more of western swing. I hear a defined style with a repetition of both instrumental licks and chord progressions.

    Bill is one of my all-time favorite artists and writers. He had an amazing ability to incorporate styles he heard around him and make them into his own music. It’s pretty incredible to be able to say, “He played bluegrass” – which was his own music – and yet hear blues, country, jazz, rockabilly and even classical music.

  7. Dave D.
    February 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

    @Barry Dale’s interpretation of Honky Tonk Swing can be found on his One More Once More album. Not from the album, but here’s a sample that’s more swing than honky tonk:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGCeQcxdUBo

    @Miss Leslie As if the “What is country?” discussion here wasn’t enough, now we can add “What is jazz?” ;-)

  8. Dave D.
    February 16, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Oops, apparently my @Barry should be @Jon. For whatever reason, whenever a commenter pastes text from earlier comments, their name shows up blank in my browser.

  9. Barry Mazor
    February 16, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Miss Leslie, I think most people would agree with you about the more “defined’ angle with swing–but that’s part of what allowed it to be pop when it was. Jazz was dancing music first, and so was the swing, style but they both evolved where a lot of standing (or sitting!) and listening happened, too. Dancing needs some regularity. After WWII, in effect, swing gave way to Be-Bop/progressive jazz on one hand (rarely for dancing) and Rhythm & blues on the other (usually for dancing.)

    The singers went off on their own, when they ere big enough to do it, partly because it was cheaper–whether that meant Frank Sinatra and small back-upreplacing a big band, or Ernests Tubb and a honky tonk grop replacing a big Western Swing band.

  10. Bob
    February 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    @ Miss Leslie: I’ve seen Georgia a half dozen times in the last year and a half, almost all with Gary Burr – one of my favorite songwriters and singers – at the Bluebird Cafe. She sings her own material very well, recently songs like “Table 32″, “Now That You’ve Met Molly”,”Death By Perfection”, the Faith Hill song “Dearly Beloved” and Reba’s “I’ll Have What She’s having”. Checking ASCAP, I see that she’s written over 200 songs.

  11. Saving Country Music
    February 16, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Excellent article.

    I think when people talk about “roots” music they name off country, blues, bluegrass, etc. etc., but I think increasingly jazz should be considered in that thread. Certainly jazz can be found in the “roots” of more and more contemporary music.

  12. Paul W Dennis
    February 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    It is good to see a new junction of country and swing. That connection has been largely missing for a while

    Older listeners will remember that RCA’s A-Team of session musician (Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Junior Huskey,Henry “Homer” Haynes and Kenneth “Jethro” Burns) all dabbled with jazz , both individually and collectively. The bucolic bards Homer & Jethro even issued two complete albums of jazz and jazz inspired music (PLAYING IT STRAIGHT and IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SQUARE)

  13. Rick
    February 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    A very interesting article indeed Barry. I love western swing and dixieland jazz, and also really like 30’s and 40’s swing music and gypsy jazz along the lines of The Hot Club of France. That’s one of the reasons I like The Hot Club of Cowtown as much as I do because of the way they mix these types of influences together in their music.

    I’ve never cared at all for the improvisational “pure jazz” form that the purists revel in as it lacks the defined structure my brain demands from music. Even as a trombone player I never cared for it at all. (Hey, I’m an accountant after all.)

    I heard Anna Wilson when she was on the Opry and her segment was a blast. There is soooo much repetition from the Opry Legends on each show that having something uniquely different was a welcome breath of fresh air!

    As for the melding of the two genres, the pinnacle has to stand as the Ray Charles album “Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music”. The fact such an album can be considered one of the all time great classic country albums proves the genres aren’t that far apart. Norah Jones’ “The Little Willies” album also leaned strongly, and pleasantly in this direction.

  14. Bob
    February 16, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Would anyone here say that blues and country share any common history? I’ve been a big fan of Delbert McClinton for about the last 15 years and I think of Lee Roy Parnell’s material as kind of a bluesy country.

  15. Barry Mazor
    February 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Bob, in short–certainly. And the blues base is one of the connecting links between country and jazz.

    (I’ve heard that there’s this book called “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers” which goes into these themes in a lot of detail. Personally, I haven’t read it but… you know, you pick things up along the way..

  16. Barry Mazor
    February 16, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    One addendum: I’m told that the Anna Wilson CD officially comes out April 5 now; it got pushed back a bit.

  17. Tom Parker
    February 17, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Barry,
    Great article! I am a country singer married to a hot jazz singer (who also happens to be a right fine country singer herself). Her name is Alex Pangman. She just did a session a month or so ago with Bucky, and raves about the man. What a gentleman.
    We were both recently talking about how when you get the best players from either genre together they seem to meld really nicely. Especially when you mix hot jazz players with trad country ones in our case.

  18. Jon
    February 17, 2011 at 9:49 am

    @TomParker

    I clicked on your link, saw the picture and nearly spit my coffee – say hi to Andrew and Showman for me.

  19. Barry Mazor
    February 17, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Thanks Tom.

    n a latebreaking development I would have included in this column if I’d known before this morning, jazz singer Diane Schuur will have out a new CD this June with her interpretation of classic country songs(“Till I Can Make It on My Owen,” “Today I Started Lovin’ You Again” and “When Two Worlds Collide” are promised–with guest artists including Vince Gill and Alison Krauss..

  20. Paul W Dennis
    February 18, 2011 at 4:15 am

    Check out the link under Gigs – an amazing story

    HEY! CHECK OUT SINGER ALEX PANGMAN IN THE FEBRUARY 2010 EDITION OF ELLE CANADA MAGAZINE! Or visit Organdonations.ca to become an organ donor and save a life!

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