Another Country: Why everything you thought you knew about cowboy music is wrong
Will the movie Crazy Heart persuade Britons that there's more to country and western music than line dancing, Garth Brooks and rootin', tootin' Nashville? Former cynic Simmy Richman on how he was converted
Monday 01 March 2010
It is the butt of musical jokes. Here's a selection to get you in the mood: What happens if you play a country song backwards? You get your wife and job back. How many country singers does it take to change a light bulb? One to change it and two to sing about the old one. What's got eight teeth and 158 legs? The front row at a Garth Brooks concert.
And if that's the consensus in the enlightened parts of America, what chance does a singing cowboy stand in the UK, where horses are saddled for gymkhanas and if you sing around a campfire long enough you will be moved on by a jobsworth citing health and safety regulations?
And yet, if you happen to venture out to the cinema over the next few weeks to see what all the fuss over Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart is about, there is every chance that you might, in spite of your impeccable taste and judgement, find your feet tapping along as if born to the prairie.
Bridges is good, Oscar-worthy even, but the real star of Crazy Heart is T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack. Because while Bridge's character, Bad Blake – a country star past his sell-by date who throws his guts up between songs – battles his demons in the time-honoured Hollywood style, it is Burnett's songs that offer him an angelic counterpoint. This is not the first time that this producer/musician has come up country trumps: his soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou rewrote the rule book on old-timey music, and the album he produced with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2009.
It is the butt of musical jokes, but here's the punch line: my name is Simmy Richman and I love country music.
It wasn't always like this. In my teens I loved and listened to anything – from reggae to funk to punk to prog and beyond. Still do. What little country I'd heard growing up ("The Coward of the County", "D.I.V.O.R.C.E", "Behind Closed Doors") amounted to little more than novelty records that had somehow infiltrated the UK charts in spite of themselves. I looked down my nose at this hillbilly music. I would have laughed heartily at all of the above jokes.
There had been a moment back in the early Eighties where country had crossed my radar. Elvis Costello had just recorded Almost Blue, his album of country covers, and I'd gone to see the "cow-punk" bands Jason and the Scorchers and the Long Ryders live. There was something in this genre that demanded to be taken seriously, but I was young, obsessed with "cool", and not yet ready for any musical epiphany that wasn't sanctioned by The Face magazine.
All that changed one night in 1989. I was in my mid-twenties and hanging out with a friend, who also happened to be my boss, the editor of a glossy magazine. She was, and still is, one of the coolest women I had ever met. We had been to some fashionable party or other; standing around, nodding our heads to Soul II Soul, acid jazz, hip-hop, the usual. We got bored. My friend mentioned that she had her Mini around the corner and offered me a lift home. As she turned the ignition, the cassette player whirred into life bang in the middle of a song: "She's the devil in disguise/You can see it in her eyes/She's been telling dirty lies/She's the devil in disguise".
The musical vogue at the time was all lilting beats and relaxing vibes. This song was from another planet: pulsing, insistent, rootsy and real while at the same time almost psychedelic. I had never heard anything like it. It was, she informed me, one of her favourite bands, the Flying Burrito Brothers. "Do you mean to say," she asked, unable to hide her disappointment, "that you've never heard of Gram Parsons?"
Over the next few months I would rectify that situation. Were I ever to stop and question why this music was having such a profound effect on me, someone born so far from its origins, the answer might have lain exactly in that sense of distance – the space between what you are and who you want to be. Because if country music is anything summarisable, it is the sound of people born far from the bright lights who long to take their place and make their mark on the big city – a situation as understandable to someone from small-town Tennessee as it is to someone from Hendon, north-west London.
I worked backwards, from Cash to Cline, from Loretta to Hank. I found bluegrass through a record, sadly now out of print, called Old and In the Way by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Through Gram and the Byrds I discovered Gene Clark and the incredible music he made with the Dillards. I found a sign that read: "IF IT AIN'T COUNTRY, IT AIN'T MUSIC," which I knew was a piece of kitsch, but I displayed it without a hint of irony above my stereo. Still do. I had fallen hard.
Gram will do that to you. "His purpose was to sell country music to people who would otherwise never listen to it," says Dr Samuel Hutt, a GP whose life was also changed and shaped by the singer. "In the late 1960s I was living and practising in Exhibition Road [London], where I had a reputation for being the rock n' roll doctor. Gram and his wife came to see me and, while I was examining her, he picked up a guitar on the other side of the curtain and started singing:
'The jukebox is playing, a honky-tonk song
One more I keep saying, and then I'll go home.
What good will it do me? I know what I'll find,
An empty bottle, a broken heart and you're still on my mind'."
Hutt knew the song already from the Byrds' 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. "I hated country music as much as anyone," he says. "But when I heard Gram sing that song, something inside me just went, 'Fuck me, there's the soul.'"
Hutt spent the next few months following Parsons into "the heart of the honky-tonk" where he found many a "bursting heart of emotion and blues and sadness and longing". When he emerged, he had become Hank Wangford and he has spent his life since pursuing what he sees as Parsons' mission to pass country on to people who might otherwise never discover it.
He has done so with a tongue-in-cheek humour that could be construed as making fun of the music. "It's my nature to laugh at things I love," he says. "If you're playing to people who don't like country, you get them to laugh and their defences are down. Then, when you've got them where you want them, you play them a George Jones song."
What is it, does Wangford think, that the English have got against it? "If you hide or repress your emotions, you are going to hate country music. If I sing a sad song, an Irish audience will heckle me for something sadder. English audiences will shout out 'Cheer up, Hank.'"
BJ Cole, a pedal-steel player from the unlikely setting of Enfield, Middlesex, has a different theory. Cole, who has played on countless records, both country (everyone from Garth Brooks to Emmylou Harris) and otherwise (he made his name on Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"), cites snobbishness rather than reserve as the main reason the English are reluctant to embrace the genre.
"It's always confused me why the same people who are so down on country music will espouse the blues and black culture in the opposite extreme. You'd think we'd be able to understand poor white people's music better than poor black folk's music. So maybe it's that English people don't want to accept something in their own background."
One thing Wangford and Cole agree on, is that the main thing that puts people in the UK off investigating this music is the stereotype perpetuated by mainstream Nashville (or "Naffsville", as Wangford calls it). In Crazy Heart, it falls to Colin Farrell's Tommy Sweet to represent the dearth of genuine talent at the top of the industry. Sweet is a country superstar who owes his success to Bad Blake. While he waits to see if Bridges' character can cough up any more hits for him to pretend are his own, he sells out stadium tours while Blake is condemned to playing two-bit bars and bowling alleys.
"In Nashville, country is presented as something not dynamic and backward-looking – like stamp collecting," says Cole. "The cowboy hats and line-dancing associations have become something to be laughed at."
"Mainstream Nashville is obsessed with money and commercialism," says Wangford. "Acts get huge by essentially playing AOR [adult-oriented rock], and the machine pretends that any artist making mid-tempo rock music while wearing a cowboy hat is a country act."
"The main hurdle I have to overcome is getting over the word 'country'," says Paul Spencer, curator and organiser of Maverick, the UK's only festival dedicated to this music. "Like 'folk', it's a word with negative connotations, but this music is an authentic combination of folk, gospel and the blues and, apart from the DJ Bob Harris, it gets no exposure in the UK." To combat this, Spencer sells his festival by emphasising the intimate setting, the good-natured vibe and its dedication to "roots" music. "Children love to see real musicians playing real music, and I want people to come and give themselves to me for the weekend and trust in my judgement about the acts I put on, many of whom they may never have heard of."
Spencer has noticed, like Parsons and Wangford before him, that this music is easier to sell when it dare not speak its name. And, outside the Bible Belt, the situation is little different in the US. Talk to people in New York or California about country, and they will instantly think you are referring to the Garths, Randys, Shanias and Swifts, none of whom I own a record by. Many will never have heard of the acts – often labelled "alt-country" in an effort to distinguish them from the conveyor belt of air-brushed Nashville cowboys – to have made country music a relevant force: the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, Gillian Welch and early Wilco to name a few.
But the line between alt.country and the mainstream is blurring by the day. The most exciting act in Nashville right now is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter called Caitlin Rose. A sort of Loretta/Dolly/Patsy for the Lily Allen generation, Rose is at the forefront of a vibrant country scene driven by young people with open ears and a musical knowledge that stretches from the Carter Family to Kurt Cobain.
Crucially, Rose's songs about white-trash romance ("Shotgun Wedding", "Docket") or noticing that packets of cigarettes can last longer than relationships ("Shanghai Cigarettes") are as likely to make you titter in your bitter as they are to put tears in your beers. Asked to name her own favourite new country acts, Rose reels off a list that includes Justin (son of Steve) Earle, Deer Tick, Phosphorescent, Glossary and Dawes. All, like Rose, make music that nods to the old ways while taking the genre in entirely new directions.
Maybe one day in the future, some of these acts will, like Bridges' character in Crazy Heart, be the kind of washed-up, wrung-out artists that country music is littered with. But for now country music is – for the first time since the "new country" movement of the mid-Eighties that spawned Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam – in good hands. By which I mean, in the hands of people who know that it is, as the songwriter Harlan Howard put it in the Sixties, nothing more or less than "three chords and the truth".
The film 'Crazy Heart' opens nationwide this week. For information about the Maverick Music Festival, go to Maverickfestival.co.uk. 'Whistling in the Dark', by Hank Wangford and the Lost Cowboys Hank wangford.co.uk) and 'Lush Life' by BJ Cole (Bjcole.co.uk) are out now
Love your country: Songs to download
"Keep on the Sunny Side", the Carter Family (1928)
"Your Cheatin' Heart", Hank Williams (1952)
"Walkin' After Midnight", Patsy Cline (1957)
"You're Still on My Mind", George Jones (1958)
"Jackson", Johnny Cash and June Carter (1963)
"Wichita Lineman", Glen Campbell (1968)
"Streets of Baltimore", Gram Parsons (1973)
"Boulder to Birmingham", Emmylou Harris (1975)
"My Old Friend the Blues", Steve Earle (1986)
"Oh My Sweet Carolina", Ryan Adams (2000)
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