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Tuesday, 07 August 2012


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"Country music" is an oxymoron.

My informal test for a contemporary country song is "would Tony Bennett cover it?".
Might sound strange but he had a big hit with Cold Cold Heart back in the 50's and was still performing it when I saw him in Omaha last year.

I don't know if Emmylou Harris is still categorised as a Country artiste but has had ethnically diverse bands (not forgetting Gypsy Albert Lee :-)



I know that some people just don’t like country music, and that’s fine with me. I don’t like some kinds of music myself – like opera. The thing that bothers me when people say they don’t like country is that they often don’t like it for the wrong reasons, which tend to be social and political, rather than musical. They tend to judge country by songs like “Okie from Muskogee,” which is a piece of junk, and which was parodied by country singer Kinky Friedman in "I'm just an asshole from El Paso."

I agree that country is largely sung by whites and latinos for an audience that is largely white and latino, though Charley Pride, who was black, had thirty some country hits during his career. Country is simply working class music, and has long run parallel to black blues music, with which there is much cross-over. There has also been a lot of cross-over with rock, and recently, with rap. The Gourds, for example, have a great country banjo-strumming cover of Snoop’s Gin and Juice, which you can find on YouTube.

There have been, in the last few years, anti-war country songs, lots of bitter songs about the current semi-depression, some stuff that is really sad, and some that is really funny (a fairly recent humorous song had a guy picking up a hitchhiking Jesus, who bums a beer and then, at the end of the song, pulls a gun and hijacks the car, saying “The lord moves in mysterious ways, and tonight, my son, he’s gonna use your car.”)

For those never listen to country, just do this five-minute test. Because Mike mentioned poetry, try Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” Listen to it, and then try to tell me it’s not better than most contemporary American music.


This is the one that makes my tin ear resonate.

"There has also been a lot of cross-over with rock, and recently, with rap. The Gourds, for example..."

My favorite is Hugo's cover of Jay Z's "99 Problems" from the album "Old Tyme Religion." Rap with banjo rocks.


It feels like the guy’s soul is really in this song… not like he’s just trying to make noise and put notes and lyrics out there. Of course, quality and popularity are often not related, but, I’ll say this one has both quality and popularity. It gets played at least once a night at the ye-haw bar where I dance Nightclub Two-Step to it.

Mike, You spelled rap wrong. It has a silent "C" in front of "rap".

"try Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” Listen to it, and then try to tell me it’s not better than most contemporary American music."

Not bad, but it digs a big hole right at the start: "I got a woman that's [unintelligible unintelligible unintelligible] / She likes being naked and gazed upon." And, being visually-minded, right away I picture the female equivalent of that grizzly old codger naked by the fire, and that is not a good mental image! I'm just sayin'.

I got a better country song for you: "Why Drunky" by the Blacks:


(That whole Bloodshot Records sampler is pretty fun. I like Alejandro Escovedo's great country line "People call me a drinker / but I'm sober half the time." It's got a great, wistful version of Neko Case's "Favorite" on it, too.)


Pretty good song. With a few exceptions, most of today's country leaves me cold, but I like this one. I think you've got the interpretation right on the money. I guess it could mean something else to others.....that's the great thing about any art form



I thought for a long time that country music was a "white people thing". It is not. To my great surprise I found that many charras and charros are big fans, at least in Southern California where did my documentary. And they would definitely not describe themselves as "white".

Mike, you might have some interest in alt-country, a more roots, throwback version of “country music” than is currently being peddled by Nashville. Notable artists worth checking out: Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Wilco, The Civil Wars, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, The Jayhawks.

Right you are, that's much closer to where I live.


I cannot abide rap but I generally find something worthwhile in all other types of music...at least in small doses. (I say that fully realizing that, these days, stating you do not like something associated with another race runs the risk of getting yourself branded "racist".) As for country music in general, I enjoy some of it but the majority is like a package of bologna--processed beyond recognition and usually served on white bread. As for the song mentioned in the blog, in my opinion it's not bad but I doubt it will become a standard of the genre. And, Mike, I believe you interpreted the meaning of the song correctly.

As a white kid who grew up in a predominately black community in the South during the years of segregation, I actually had a pretty diverse exposure to music and culture. One of the things I miss most from my childhood is the independence of small town radio stations in their music programming. When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, radio stations in my area were not committed to one musical genre. Oh, there were some 100% religious programming with only Gospel music and some all-black stations with only Blues and R&B. But most music-oriented stations were pretty inclusive when it came to programming. We got Memphis, Motown, Nashville, Tin Pan Alley and a little pop-oriented Jazz. No classical--I didn't begin to listen to classical music until I was an adult--but otherwise it was a good mix of the music of the day. Today, a radio station is defined by the single type of music it plays and it's pretty damn boring to listen for very long.

By the way, if you learned to love music by listening to the radio as a kid, give Dave Alvin's song "Plastic Silver Nine Volt Heart" a listen.

Rodriguez is now 70 and soon to do performances here in Sydney.

The thing that never worked for me with Country music is that it always seems to be a bunch of jingoistic slogans run together in a way that tugs emotionally but seldom connects with reality.

Billy Connelly's brilliant Country and Western Supersong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4ilEIypWbo has all the necessary elements; crippled granny who lives in Nashville, blind orphan boy, train whistle in distance, hokey narrated sincerity and predictable and repeated tragedy.

For those with a darker bent, try the Country Death Song from the Violent Femmes; it's lyrics are truly awful but has merit as cure for curiosity about Country music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVQHX81c4EU

And in a not unrelated thought; Who needs colour when the real world is so Black and White?

Mike, please tell..North Ave in Chicago??

And, if so, which bar?

I've always wanted to share my favorite photography-related lyric from Richard Shindell... it's pretty clever, and seems a sequitur (is that a word?) to this post:

You took the toaster when you went
You never paid your half the rent
You took the spices from the rack
But you don’t have to put them back
Cause in your haste on Halloween
You left your camera on the bed
Where we played roles in black and white
You left a roll of black and white
I set the timer, thought of you
And put the lens up to my head
I took a photograph for you
What comes out gray is really red

"But contemporary country strikes me as mainstream pop-rock with a big sign on the door saying WHITE PEOPLE ONLY."

Not in my part of Texas. I live in San Antonio and experience live music many weekends of the year. Not Lilly White here. Having Austin just up the road probably has something to do with the variety and quality of the music hereabouts. Most of the best players are young but hardly ethnically monolithic. We enjoy great diversity in people and music.

Mike check out bob Edwards web site, he interviewed the movie's "searching for sugarman" producer the other day on his show. It sounds like a good movie, and Rodriguez a great talent. It is too bad that talent can't rise to the surface more easily. He was born well before the I Internet, but he sounds like a great person.

Thanks a lot for that, Mike. I thought I hated country music when I was a kid. I'd change stations if it ever came on the radio. But I learned later that I had sucked it all in anyway, along with my pork chops and redeye gravy from Gramma. You can take the boy out of the country...

Hank Williams.

Mike, the trailer for "Searching for Sugarman" is already being shown in the more artsy theaters of the U.S. So I'm sure you'll be able to see the film this year.

"Hank Williams."


(But he has Junior to atone for on the cosmic balance scale, so his final score has to have a lot of deductions set against it....)

(Yes, I've been watching too much Olympics.)


And Hank Williams had Hank III, which is even a bigger karmic deficit. Hank Jr. is called Bocephus, and the three of them are no referred to as Precephus, Bocephus, and Recephus.

3 reasons to comment

1 Mike 100% on the Cold Fact story. Huge in South Africa in the 80's real cult following. After the "discovery" of Rodriguez he toured here ;-) great story

2 Shout-out to fellow South African Henk...Hello from Pretoria

3 Nice song - not really big on country music more rock person.

Sunny - NOT - South Africa
1st snow since 1959 in Pretoria even though it won't count as snow or cold for you Mike

Well, country music certainly divides people.
As I didn't grow up with much country music, I am from the same country as ABBA, it was a new experience when I came to New York in the early 80s.
And here is the thing. In the beginning they stuck me in the darkroom developing and printing. Guess they didn't know what to do with me at the newspaper...
What do you do in the dark while waiting for the prints to develop?
There was a radio of course. I started to check out the different stations, and there were a lot at that time.
Well at first there seems to be a wide selection of stations but pretty soon I realized that they all played very similar music. I got tired of rock music and the classical music pretty soon.
But I discovered the country stations. That's when I really got into country music. Kick105, or something like that.
Now, thanks to Spotify and the likes, I can explore country music and related genres much better.
Lately I found some groups that I would never have a chance to listen to otherwise. Myself I seem to like bluegrass and bluegrass related styles more and more.
To an all-american this might not qualify as country music but I like it anyway.
Check out artists like Crooked Still, Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull and the very interesting Carolina Chocolate Drops together with Luminiscent Orchestrii.

Photography can change ones music taste!

Gillian Welch, she's amazing........

I'd recommend checking out an obscure movie from 1973, "Payday", starring the great Rip Torn for a jaundiced look at the country music scene. It's reputed to have more than an accidental similarity to events in the life of one or more musicians.
And, of course, "Nashville".
Now I'm British, so "Country" has always been a bit of toe-curler but there have been a few artists that have uncurled them. Waylon Jennings for starters; currently (as mentioned by other posters) Lucinda Williams (in small doses) and Steve Earl. Does Gillian Welch count as "country"?

PPs - check the viewer reviews on the IMDB page for "Payday" - they give a good idea of the movie's qualities.

George Jones!

One of the greatest songs ever written:


I grew up on the edge of Appalachia and there country music and bluegrass were the norm. I hated both types, I wanted rock.
Rock, there was the usual pablum that even small town commercial plays, so I didn't get too much variety.
Oh, and then there was the elevator music of my parents. Less said the ...
Long and short, there are good examples of many music genres and there are many bad examples of music, but the good always is pleasing to the ear, and the bad always seems to be in the car next you at the traffic light.
I live in Toronto now, if you can't hear the variety either turn up the hearing aid or stop at the next traffic light.

"But contemporary country strikes me as mainstream pop-rock with a big sign on the door saying WHITE PEOPLE ONLY."

Why not just demonize all musical genres? You can change "country" to "classical," which you profess to prefer, and say the same. Sheesh, people never stop amazing me. I wonder what Charley Pride would have said when he was considered "contemporary country?"

I dunno ... I tried the one in John Camp's link, the "drunky" one Mike recommended, and another (Eva Cassidy) and none of them worked any better than any other country music for me. Listening to them, I think the problem is beer. I don't like beer. I think you have to like beer to enjoy country music. (I think you have to be drinking beer to enjoy country music).

But I've added "Searching for Sugarman" to my must-see movie list.

He can't be a real, contemporary, country, musician - he's not wearing a black, or white, Stetson hat. :-)

Think you need to listen to the right kind of country....

Stay away from all that Nashville "New Country" stuff. That's just pop music with hickory flavoring. Some of the best stuff is coming out of Texas (Austin, particularly): folks like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Hayes Carl, Jimmy LaFave, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, James McMurtry, Joe Ely, etc...check out Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Snake Farm", for instance--or James McMurtry's "We Can't Make It Here Anymore"--definitely not MOR....

And you got your "alt country"--bands like Drive-By Truckers, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Bottle Rockets, and so forth. Not to forget "Twangcore"--check out BR-549, Junior Brown and Bill Kirchen, among others. And let's not forget the old timey stuff--Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris (the Queen of Country Music, as far as I'm concerned. Period), and Gram Parsons....

There's plenty of good country music out there--not necessarily "WHITES ONLY" (just remember, though, Gram Parsons called country music "white soul". And you'd be amazed at how many of the old black blues players grew up listening to country music).

I've found out that with music, the good stuff isn't in the middle--it's out there on the edges...

You could always try Nanci Griffith, but she might be more folk than country. She sort of straddles the line.


Back in a less-enlightened London of the early 70's I went with a Nigerian friend into a West End pub one early evening. The barman glared at us from the far end of an empty bar and shook his head, gesturing us to leave. My pal enquired very loudly "Are you not serving us because I'm black or because he's a Jew?"(He indicated in my direction). The barman just closed his eyes and we found a more welcoming tavern. How times have changed...hopefully.

Shout back Nico.

Thinking of Rodriguez really takes me back to the '80s. Although Wits University in the '80s was one of those places where, if you can remember it, you probably weren't there :-).

Still being covered in clubs in South Africa:


Area Code 615 made two albums in about 1970. If you happen to find one at a yard sale consider yourself blessed.

I could listen to Emmylou 'til the end of time...

Hip-hop is a fascinating genre, because some of it is the most forward thinking music that's been made in the past 30 years, while so much of it is the worst kind of misogynistic,. self-serving trash. (The funny/sad thing is that sometimes both currents are going on at the same time!)

Anyway if you would like to listen to 'rap' music, you can really just ignore what's been on the radio for the last 18 years... the good stuff has been more underground. It can be tough to get into, but something like J Dilla's Donuts is just a really strong piece of music.

Okay, Mike. You have to find a way to see “Searching for Sugar Man.” I dragged my husband and 2 kids to see it at the Sundance Cinema in Houston today. I began reading obsessively about the story of Sixto Rodriguez after reading your post, and also familiarized myself with his music via Spotify. After listening to his first album, “Cold Fact,” about 10 times over, I bought the album from Amazon (using your link, as always) and have listened to it another 10 times, at least. It’s only $7.99, and includes 5 tracks not included on the original LP. Easily the best $7.99 I’ve spent on music in a long, long time. Back to the movie, though… I was a bit worried that I had over-saturated myself on the topic of Rodriguez before seeing the film. Luckily, even though there were no (major) surprises left for me in the story line, the movie was still suspenseful and completely satisfying—an almost unbelievable fairy tale of a story that I don’t think I could tire of if I saw/heard it over and over again (just like Rodriguez’s music and lyrics). The surprises for me were mainly in getting to meet some of the supporting “characters," especially his daughters and one of his fellow construction workers, who were almost as interesting as Rodriguez himself. I hope you’ll be able to see “Searching for Sugar Man.” It looks as it will be playing in Madison in a few weeks (my parents live there and I’m going to tell them they have to see it) and also in Milwaukee (opening there on the 24th, I believe).

Oh, and while I’m here I also wanted to thank you for your post about the aging dog, Shoep, and his owner. I’ve viewed that photo at least a dozen times and have cried every time. It seems like just another example of an amazing, life-affirming story right under our noses that would never have seen the light of day except for the efforts of just one or two people, a bit of serendipity, and the internet. These 2 posts of yours have provided more joy and entertainment value for me than everything else I’ve read on the internet all year, LOL, excepting other T.O.P. content, of course.

Thanks so much to you and your wonderful blog (a treasure in and of itself).

Take care,


I just wanted to correct something I said earlier, about the "Cold Fact" album containing 5 more tracks than the original 1970 LP. I'm not sure where I got that idea, other than the fact that looking up "Cold Fact" on Spotify led me to a list of only 7 songs. Then, when I saw 12 songs on the 2008 re-release of "Cold Fact," I assumed that there may have been some tracks added since the original release. After looking at Spotify again, I think that the 7-song set may have been a playlist selected by another user--just a subset of favaorites from the whole album. Anyway, sorry for the confusion!

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