Saturday, 26 October 2013

Country Music as Ideology

Ideology forms the basis of the way we live our lives from the music we listen to, to the books we read - we all follow a set of ideas and values that we have either decided for ourselves or have been prescribed by the society we live in. Ideology effects every single area of our lives and music genres are certainly no exception to this rule. The very nature of Country music is determined by the ideology that the genres' 'initiates' subscribe to.


After the awarding of the 1974 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award to Australian Pop singer Olivia Newton-John, twenty-two Country artists gathered at the Nashville home of George Jones and Tammy Wynette to discuss the future of their music. A week later they announced the formation of the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) - an organisation restricted to Country performers (those who they deemed worthy of performing Country music). They even set up a committee to determine the Country credentials of prospective ACE members.

In Country music, as in most other genres, there are a set of embedded rules founded on the social and cultural climates that the music emerged from - this has created a form of exclusivity, highlighted in the actions of the Association of Country Entertainers, separating those who subscribe to the music (initiates) and those who do not, thus forming an invisible 'bubble' around the genre. Yet it is evident, from the example, that the 'bubble' of Country music is somewhat penetrable by the forces of popular music.

It is this idea of exclusivity which has defined and characterised Country music throughout its history and will continue to shape its future.

Anti-Commercialism and the Country 'Canon'

In a recent interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Americana artist Slaid Cleaves expressed a view held by many traditional Country music fans about the state of modern mainstream Country:

"I guess I just can’t stand that bigger-than-life, good ol’ boy kind of country music. It’s all pretty cheesy if you ask me. Whenever I accidentally come across any nationally-recognized music, it turns my stomach pretty much. All the videos are sexed up with people just trying to push buttons and get people all riled up. I have a friend who writes for a living in Nashville, and he tells me that last season it was all about banjos and now it’s all about tailgates and trucks. He tells me you got to hit those notes if you ever want to get your song cut. I mean, c’mon."

Cleaves continues, "I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the craft, and sometimes you can just tell that if a particular song had been done acoustically, it could have worked. There are well-crafted songs out there. I don’t know. Let’s just say I am very comfortable being on the tiniest little fringe of country music these days." 

The purists of Country music believe that their music exists or should exist in a World outside of the commercialism of Popular music. It can be said that Country music strives to be Anti-Commercial! But how can music be anti-commercial in such a commercial industry? In its purest form, Country music doesn't tend to sell outside the genre's 'bubble'. For example, stars like Dwight Yoakam who have been revered by 'initiates' have often been scorned by the press on tour in Countries like England. On the other hand, Country music which abandons traditionalism for aspects of Popular music in order to achieve commercial success (e.g. the music of the Nashville Sound and the Country-Pop of the 1990s) have been rejected by traditional fans but have gathered a following outside of Country music's traditional circles.

If we take a look at the Canon of Country music, we can see a clear hierarchy in its ideology. Authentic and traditional Country will automatically rise to the top of the genre - the music of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and George Jones will always be seen as the highest form of Country music. (For more on this, read my previous article on Authenticity in Country Music). 

So What?!

There is no doubt that the incorporation of pop elements into Country music in the form of the Nashville Sound of the late 50s and early 60s SAVED Country music from potential commercial extinction. Rock & Roll had taken the music industry by storm and threatened the very existence of the Country music industry.

However, the Nashville Sound opened the doorway for the merging of Country music with popular styles to the extent where we now have very little pure Country music in the Country charts today. The 'bubble' has been fully penetrated, allowing the pure air of Country music to be contaminated. This has caused many aspiring, traditional Country artists like Slaid Cleaves to become disillusioned with the industry to the point where they no longer want to label themselves as Country. We may have already reached the stage where Country music as a pure genre now ceases to exist!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Authenticity in Country Music

'The man come to shake my hand
and rob me of my farm.
I shot him dead and I hung my head
and drove off in his car'

Listening to Americana singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham can at times be a true test of emotional strength. Born and raised in rural Texas, ranching and competing in rodeo competitions during his teenage years and living alone through most of this time, Bingham's hard-living gives a real feel of authenticity to his music, embodied in the whisky-drinking, gravely nature of his vocals.

Authenticity is one of the most defining features of what good Country and Americana music should be. It is often said that you have to have lived it to be able to sing it and this is certainly the case with Bingham. But what does authenticity in Country music actually mean and is it really all that?

Authenticity of experience

Take the example of one of Country music's most famous names, Johnny Cash. Born in Arkansas in 1932, Cash picked cotton in the fields from the age of five and sang Gospel songs taught to him by his mother to help them through the day. At every opportunity J.R., as he was known, would listen to the family radio, especially the Grand Ole Opry on WSM radio where he would have heard the likes of the Carter Family and Roy Acuff. Many of the experiences Cash had as a child would later re-appear in his songs. 'Five Feet High and Rising' is about the flooding of his family's farm:

This is authenticity at its highest level.

Another example can be found in Hank Williams' melancholic 'I'm so lonesome I could cry':

'Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
That midnight train comes whinin' low
I'm so lonesome I could cry'

True poetry from The Hillbilly Shakespeare, no doubt inspired by the sounds he heard in the wild, growing up in Alabama.

The case put forward by many traditional Country music fans is that modern Country stars lack authenticity because they haven't lived the 'hard life' and therefore cannot sing true Country music. It certainly seems that country artists have to have the right background to be accepted in the genre.

However, there are exceptions to this rule - take the Americana artist Slaid Cleaves for example. Born in Washington, raised in Maine and majoring in English and Philosophy at Tufts University, Cleaves' upbringing was as far away as you can get from the likes of Bingham and Cash. But this does not have any effect on his ability as a singer and songwriter in the genres of Country and Americana. One of the most authentic features of his sound is his extremely impressive yodelling ability, highlighted in the album, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge in Austin, Texas on the tracks Texas Top Hand and Rolling Stone from Texas. 

Authenticity of Sound

The music of the Honky-Tonk era (1940-53) is seen as the most traditional and purest form of Country music with its focus on the twang of the steel guitar and the raw nature of the Southern accent - Hank Williams called it 'pure, unadulterated country' and the Honky-Tonk sound would be emulated in many different guises throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

But authenticity isn't simply gained with the addition of a steel guitar. For eample, the Gram Parsons' dominated Byrds' album Sweetheart of the Rodeo had a strong emphasis on the steel guitar, yet the band were shunned when they played at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, in 1968.

Shania Twain was one of the main figures of the 1990s 'Country-Pop' scene - her sound often incorporated the vibrancy of the pedal steel guitar but every other aspect of her music comes from the 'Pop' world - the slickness of production, the semi-tonal key changes and the song topics - The use of the steel guitar doesn't make her music country!

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the very early music that Johnny Cash produced at Sun Studios in Memphis didn't use the steel guitar at all and instead innovated the new boom-chicka-boom sound. Yet, Johnny Cash is seen as one of the most authentic country artists to have ever lived, and rightly so.


So what are Country music fans actually looking for when they talk about the need for authenticity in their music?

I see authenticity as more about feeling and expression than anything else - the ability of the artist to relate emotionally to its audience. It certainly helps to have lived the 'hard life' and to adopt a pure Country sound. However, with the 'hard life' having already largely disappeared, it is rare to come across artists like Ryan Bingham.

Thus, with little authenticity of experience remaining in Country music, we now have to place heightened emphasis on its sound and the replication of traditional Country music. Of course, the genre must move forward with the times but it must do so by looking to its past. The roots revival of the late 1990s, peaking in the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, showed how Country music can still remain authentic and relevant in today's society. This also highlights the importance of Americana music in keeping the tradition of American roots music alive.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Lindi Ortega - Tin Star (Album review)

Canadian Country singer, Lindi Ortega, is back with a thunderous twang in the form of her new album Tin Star, her third in the last three years.

Having moved from Toronto to the 'shining stars' of Nashville, Tennessee to record Cigarettes and Truckstops in 2012, there is no doubt that Tin Star owes much of its influence to Music City, U.S.A. The title track is a tribute to the aspiring musician, many of whom she would have heard play to almost empty rooms despite their immense talent. Ortega sings: "Well we don't got fame, no name in lights, no billboard hits and no sold out nights". But Tin Star is also a tribute to music itself. Ortega sings that she might just walk away "but the music keeps on running through the blood in my veins and it just makes me stay". Voodoo Mama also touches on this theme, expressing Ortega's love of New Orleans and wanting to go back to "music on the streets".

The album as a whole contains an entertaining combination of heartfelt country ballads of love and pain along with foot-stomping rockabilly songs which really get you up off your feet. Tin Star really takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions. The opening track Hard as This sounds like it's been taken from the opening credits to an old Western movie - The next thing you probably expect to hear is the voice of John Wayne booming out through your speakers. Instead we hear the expressiveness of Ortega and this is no disappointment as she entices us into the album.

Gypsy Child tells us of Ortega's move from Toronto to Nashville and a major feature of her sound is its sheer attitude, especially when she powerfully launches into the chorus, proudly professing: "I'm a Gypsy child, that's what my Mama told me." One of the stand out songs from Tin Star has to be Lived and Died Alone with its eyebrow-raising theme. Ortega sings: "When the sun has set, I will go dig up the dead, lift their bodies from their graves and I'll lay them in my bed". Looking beneath its clearly gory nature, Lived and Died Alone simply expresses the natural human fear of not being loved - something we can all relate to! Ortega sings this with such pain in her voice, it has the potential to move the listener to tears. This is Not Surreal can be found on the same haunting level as Lived and Died Alone and perhaps carries with it the best lyric of the entire album: "One must always suffer for the sake of their art."

In between these two, deeper songs lies the emphatic I Want You which shows off Ortega's feisty side, singing "I want you" as a command rather than a request. She's certainly letting us know who's in charge!

It is very rare to feel that no track is worth skipping on any album but this is certainly the case with Ortega's Tin Star and with the state of modern country music, Ortega's contribution is a breath of fresh air. The only disappointment is the inability of the Country Music establishment to welcome her with open arms!

Rating - 8/10