While driving in an unfamiliar city around the end of 1996, I stumbled across a radio station playing sides of the best albums of the year. I did not recognize the artist being played. The vocals were gritty with a definite southern twang, but the music sounded like a cross between the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (later realized it was probably more Townes Van Zandt than Dylan), with maybe a touch of early Tom Petty. I thoroughly enjoyed several songs before the DJ identified the album as Steve Earle’s I Feel Alright.
Wait, what? Steve Earle is country and I don’t like country.
I ended up buying a number of Earle’s albums. Some of his songs are a bit too twangy for my taste (and I steered clear of his bluegrass collaboration with the Del McCoury Band), but much of Earle’s work just sounds like good old rock and roll to me.
Of course, I am well aware that rock and roll would not exist without country music’s sloppy mating with the blues (and gospel and a bit of Latin) — really makes it appropriate that the phrase “rock and roll” began as a blues term for sex. And I must admit I enjoy a fair amount of rock and roll that highlights its country roots, especially Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, along with their interlocking branches and offshoots. So maybe I’m not quite as averse to country as I have been claiming. In fact, two weeks ago I went to a country(ish) concert, Beach House and friends’ recreation of ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s classic No Other album.
I enjoy Taylor Swift, but her pop songs, and can even appreciate Kacey Musgraves, especially her song that criticizes the strict norms and hypocrisy of some country:
I am kind of perversely fascinated by the odd songs gathered on the Troubled Troubadours compilation, but mostly as novelties.
I also like Johnny Cash — but who doesn’t? — especially his series of American Recordings with Rick Rubin. “The Man Come Around” was used very effectively in a recent episode of Blacklist. I like some of the recordings by other country gangstas, uh, outlaws, like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and, especially, Willie Nelson. (Not so much David Allen Coe, as I cannot get past the blatant racism in some of his work, including, probably falsely, claiming to have killed a black inmate who tried to bend him over in a penitentiary shower.)
And then there is the aforementioned Townes Van Zandt. I already knew a few of his songs, but Earle’s endorsement — ““Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” (To which Van Zandt deadpanned: “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”) — along with covers by Earle (who recorded a whole album of Van Zandt’s songs, even gave his son Justin the middle name Townes) and Tindersticks led me to explore the rest of his oeuvre. I am very glad I did.
But as much as I appreciate these artists when I happen to hear them, along with the craft of classic country songwriters like Harlan Howard (“I Fall to Pieces”), Hank Cochran (“I Fall to Pieces”) and Willie Nelson (“Crazy”) — especially when performed by Patsy Cline . . .
. . . I very seldom put them on myself. And as much as I like Willie Nelson’s distinctive phrasing and songwriting, I’d much rather hear his song “Funny How Time Slips Away” sung by Al Green:
I also prefer Ray Charles or Solomon Burke’s R&B covers over the originals of the many country songs the two have recorded.
As the character Tad Allagash said in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, “Taste . . . is a matter of taste.”