Modern Country

I’m on the road again, in one of those towns where there really aren’t any restaurants besides chains.  So I went to the nearest place within walking distance of my hotel — a Longhorn Steakhouse.

img_5171-1For a chain joint, the Longhorn isn’t bad.  The servers are nice, the place is clean, and the food is decent and reasonably priced.  There’s only one problem — the soundtrack at the Longhorn is “modern country,” which is enough to make pretty much any rational diner lose their appetite.  If there’s a more soulless, generic, synthesized, cookie-cutter music genre out there these days, I don’t know what it is.

I have no idea who modern country artists are — I just know they all sound the same.  The only thing that’s “country” about them is that they wear cowboy hats and try to sing with a twang.  Other than than, they’re indistinguishable from soulless, generic, synthesized, cookie-cutter pop stars.  As musical performers go, the modern country “stars” seem to be all hat and no cattle — pathetic, lamentable posers who aren’t fit to carry the boots of the country music stars who came before them.

It’s sad, really.  Country music used to be interesting, with artists like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette.  They actually seemed to care about the songs they wrote and sang.  There was feeling in every chord.  Calling the modern bastardization of the genre “country music” really is an insult to the authentic, roots-related music that was produced way back when.

Fortunately, “modern country” is so generic that it’s like elevator music — easy to tune out.  I read my book, ate my steak, and pretty much ignored the twangy sameness.  You wouldn’t have been able to say that about the country stars and songs of the past.

Advertisements

Classic Country

I love almost every form of live music, but I’ve got an especially soft spot in my heart for classic country.  These guys performed at a conference I’m attending, and they were terrific.  Give me a banjo, and a fiddle, and some tunes by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers and I’m a happy camper.  I’ll get out on the dance floor and show my appreciation, too.

You can argue about the best decade of rock ‘n roll, or whether Bach or Mozart or Beethoven was the greatest genius, but one musical point is indisputable:  modern country sucks and isn’t a patch off the George Jones/Merle Haggard/Patsy Cline/Tammy Wynette era.  Why did “country music” become some crappy form of pop music lite?  It was great to hear these guys play the vintage stuff, and in vintage style, too.

Norah Jones

America has enjoyed many blessings.  Two of the more obvious ones are extraordinary national parks and exceptional women singers.

On the latter category:  if you haven’t already done so, give a listen to the Norah Jones CD The Fall.  Sure, I know it’s been out there for a while.  So has Zion National Park.  That doesn’t make it any less amazing.

You could spend days talking about incredible female voices in American music.  Judy Garland.  Rosemary Clooney.  Aretha Franklin.  Patsy Cline.  Janis Joplin.  Linda Ronstadt. Gladys Knight.

In The Fall, Norah Jones holds her own with this impossible competition.  Her smoky voice, with its deliberate pace and terrific lower register, adds an incredible depth to her songs.  Listen to I Wouldn’t Need You and December if you don’t believe me.

Friday night, after a great night out catching up with old friends and a few cold Blue Moon Beligian Wheats, is just about the perfect time to listen to Norah Jones.

Country Music, The Merle Haggard Way

I love country music.

I’m not talking about the modern stuff that sounds like pop music, even though its sung by some poser wearing a cowboy hat and boots.  No, I’m talking about the country music of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when singers like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Merle Haggard ruled the airwaves.  I’m talking about the music that had that undefinable, unapologetic twang to it, with steel guitars and songs about getting dumped and drinking your troubles away, sung by honest, unsynthesized voices.

One of Merle Haggard’s great songs, Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down, is a good example of what I would consider to be a true country song, sung by one of country’s greatest voices (even though the rendition on this You Tube video includes an uncommon horn section).  How can anyone not like this kind of American music — as authentic and deeply rooted in our culture as jazz and blues?

 

Songs with a twang

I like listening to music. One of the great things about an Ipod is that you can store enough music to satisfy all of your musical whims, whatever they may be. One day it’s classical music, another it’s jazz, and another day yet it’s music from the 1960s.

In my trip to Boston this week I listened to country music. I don’t like “modern” country music, for the most part — it tends to be boring and bland. I like older country, with a twang. It’s good traveling music, and the storytelling that is a fundamental part of that kind of country music often brings a smile to my face. Country music wouldn’t be what it is if there weren’t lots of songs about drinking and failed relationships.

Until recently, I didn’t really listen to country music, because I associated it with “Hee Haw” and redneck culture. A few years ago, however, I bought some George Jones CDs and realized how good the music could be. If you haven’t listened to country music, I recommend seeing if you like the following songs, which are some of my favorites:

The Bottle Let Me Down, by Merle Haggard — a song with a great set of lyrics, and terrific guitar playing, and — of course! — the sad story behind the lyrics

Little Ways, by Dwight Yoakam — classic drums, and a real twang in the vocals

Luckenbach, Texas, by Waylon Jennings (with an assist from Willie Nelson) — a song with an important message, sung by an artist with a world weary voice

She Thinks I Still Care, by George Jones — I think George Jones has a perfect voice for country music, and most of his better songs tell a compelling story, too.

Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline have recorded lots of good songs, too.