Countrier than you


As I browse the back catalogue of Rusty Debris, I find Rich Hall makes an engaging guide for my latent dilettante interest in Country. He’s also a fine Tweety-baiter, of course, such as this. And his BBC4 film is both instructive and hilarious:

Country may often seem banal to us poncey liberal elite—although we’re on thin ice if we’re going to laugh at the outfits. But like flamenco, or tango (or, come to think of it, almost any genre worth its salt), beyond the cosy domestic image it’s about pain, and poor suffering Hugh Manity.

Another entry in the list of drôle Country song titles:

If you won’t leave me, I’ll find someone who will.

In time the industry managed to cash in on the outlaw image (at first latent, later a badge of honour) that came to supplement the homely veneer—embodied in The Highwaymen and the great Johnny Cash. And so on to Willie Nelson (“Then one day, thankfully, his house caught fire”).

Rich’s comments on Tom Hiddleston’s ill-advised Hank Williams biopic I saw the light are priceless. He also manages to give short shrift to John Travolta, Taylor Swift, and even Bono.

Like a gen-u-ine ethnomusicologist, he notes the diverse ethnic origins of Country, its local distinctiveness, migration, and patronage. Again, there are some fine taxonomies here. He notes the shift from Nashville to Austin, and the Cosmic Cowboy collision of redneck and hippy. And wow, there’s some hot fiddling.

He only lets himself down a bit on female singers, who were (and are) such a major aspect of the genre’s success.

There are also some nice details on changing instrumental technique—a trademark of the best discussions of music—like “He [Chuck Berry Junior, not the Chuck Berry, R.I.P.!] told him [Waylon ] to replace the top E string with a banjo string to bend it easier, and to shave down the frets on his guitar to get a lower action.”

The secret is to replicate, not to regurgitate.

This quote from the online blurb could be an encapsulation of ethnomusicology:

As he unearths the roots and inner workings of country music, Rich finds it’s more than just music—it’s a lifestyle.

There are loads of wonderful documentaries on such topics, avoiding hagiography while evincing proper respect—but where are all the programmes about shawm bands or Daoists, eh?

Update: Ken Burns now has a major series Country music (cf. his Jazz series), its eight parts now being shown in abbreviated form on BBC4. Just the opening programme, on the early history of Country to 1933, is an aural and visual feast. For more, see here.


See also Accordion crimes.

6 thoughts on “Countrier than you

  1. Pingback: Obituary of a determined village leader | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. I was a country fan when it was pleasurable but not profitable.I purchased on 78 rpm from the Co-op in Gloucester Johnny Cash’s Big River and Ballad of a Teenage Queen for 1/6 each. Somehow I managed to acquire albums by George Jones in the late 50s. From 1959 onward I bought every single issued by Don Gibson. I also bought more obscure stuff by the likes of Stanford Clark who was also admired by Keith Richards I corresponded with Bluegrass star Jimmy Skinner..It was a wonderful experience to see Johnny Cash live at Glastonbury onstage with the Bishop of Bath and Wells. On the same day on the same stage I saw Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakum..


  3. Pingback: Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Some jazz fiddling | Stephen Jones: a blog

  5. Pingback: More Country | Stephen Jones: a blog

  6. Pingback: Country titles | Stephen Jones: a blog

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