Sunday, 24 November 2013

Why Country? - My journey into the musical world of the southern American states

You may have already wondered: Why does a 19 year-old guy from England, who is studying Classical Music at the University of Bristol, like Country and Americana Music? This is the question I will attempt to answer now by explaining my journey into the musical world of the southern American states.

It began in one of the most unlikely of places - whilst playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas! If you've never played the game before, or any of the others in the series, you may want to watch the trailer just to gauge the nature of the video game.

San Andreas, like every Grand Theft Auto game, has an incredibly diverse soundtrack with at least 10 radio stations you can choose to listen to whilst driving around in stolen vehicles. One of these radio stations was called K-Rose, a Country show which included some of the greatest Country songs ever recorded. At the time, I knew very little music outside of the charts and certainly had no idea what Country music was - my mind was free of any of the negative connotations that the genre is still labelled with to this day! I chose to listen to K-Rose because the music was different which made it stand out amongst the other radio stations. This is still one of the main attractions for me with Country music - It's the sound of the steel guitar and southern accent that keeps me interested.

San Andreas was just the starting point in my journey. My interest in Country music gained real momentum when I discovered Johnny Cash through the film Walk the Line at the age of around 14 or 15. I have no recollection of knowing or even recognising the name Johnny Cash before watching that film, and thus owe a lot to the film for introducing me to the Man in Black despite its many failings in the representation of Cash's life. 

For the next 3 years after Walk the Line, I survived on a diet made up almost exclusively of Johnny Cash's music. After exhausting his Greatest Hits album, I went in search of Cash's less well-known output - going through the 'lost' albums of the 1970s and 80s. I now have a playlist of almost 900 Johnny Cash songs and I still don't think it's complete. With Cash, it's not just his recording output that marks him out as one of the greatest artists of all time in any genre. His music transcends the confines of genre - it's Country, Folk and most certainly American but his music is the music of the people! Cash's ability to tell stories through his songs is one of the most appealing aspects of his music and one which he gained from the tradition of folk ballads (often about murder) in Country music. 

The most interesting aspect of Cash is the man himself - he was and still remains both an enigma and an icon. He is my idol because of what he stood for and represented - listening to his signature song, Man in Black, will tell you all you need to know. 

Johnny Cash opened the doorway to the world of Country music for me - his covers of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers introduced me to a genre which was new and fresh but which was also partly recognisable due to the K-Rose soundtrack. The next stage of my journey came in the form of a 6 CD set called Superstars of Country which was comprised mostly of Country music from the 70s and 80s including songs by Dolly Parton, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Listening to these CDs furthered my understanding of Country music and its diversity - I was still becoming acquainted with many of the sub genres of Country music and had not formed any opinions about what true Country music should sound like. 

This occurred only last summer when I began to read up on Country music. The book which has influenced my opinion the most is In the Country of Country - A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff: 

'To call today's mainstream country music country at all is a's kempt, comfortable music - hyper-sincere, settled, and careful neither to offend nor surprise...contemporary country music thrives because it is sleek and predictable, a safe adventure in a smoke-free environment'.

Writing in 1997, Dawidoff was referring to the Country-Pop of the 1990s with the music of Shania Twain and Billie Ray Cyrus. Despite the roots revival at the turn of the century, it can only be argued that this trend of Country-Pop is still flourishing and dominating the genre today. If you were to ask the average person to name a modern Country singer, they would probably answer with Taylor Swift - and that's the moment my head would drop in shame. The Country music industry has abandoned the roots of the genre in favour of commercial success - out goes the music of Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent and in comes the Pop trash of Taylor Swift. This defies everything Country music stands for. It was a medium through which many could escape the hardships of their troubled lives. You can picture a young J.R. Cash sitting eagerly by the family radio, listening to the Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry after a hard day's work in the cotton fields. The music had firm foundations which the people could relate to, but now that he genre has been contaminated with the baseless nature of popular music, mainstream Country music has just become another form of commercialism which doesn't give a damn about the people. This is why I have now begun to discover Americana music with its emphasis on roots music. It is through the medium of Americana that real Country music and the roots remains and survives in music today.

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