Thursday, June 02, 2011

heading out to the country

Whenever I ask my classes about music, I have at least one (and often many more) who claim "I like every form of music...except country."

I don't believe them, of course. They cannot possibly like absolutely everything. For that matter, they cannot even have experienced a significant sampling of every form of music. My first response is to ask them "Everything? Cool...well, who's your favorite Klezmer artist?" They usually look at me stupidly. I'm expecting that, though, as the whole point of the exercise (and in my class, pretty much everything is an exercise of sorts) is to get them to recognize labels....which, since I annually have students try to convince me there are no genres, is a worthwhile endeavor.

I then slam them on the "country" label. What exactly do they mean by "country?" Do they mean every single artist performing every single variety? Do they include (or have even heard of) alt-country? Bluegrass? Breaking down the country label is important, because it works as a perfect counterpoint to their supposition that there are--or at least, they do not subscribe to--any notion of labels.

Thing is, though, in regard to their distrust of country music, I kinda know how they feel.

I grew up in the South. This means that, for me, there was an influx of Hank Williams Jr. and Garth Brooks (although, to be fair, the latter was probably not geographically limited), and there was something about the music from these two which struck me as...well, formulaic, with a particularly pungent example one being Brooks's song "Rodeo." New Country (so it was called) just hit me wrong. Later, during year one in Ohio, I was riding the off-campus shuttle, and the driver had the radio on a New Country (which, by this time, had achieved such a level of saturation that it was just plain "Country") station, and I finally was able to narrow down exactly the contrived nature of the genre: take out the steel guitar and fiddle, insert a distorted electric, and you would have a hair metal power ballad (which I also loathed). You would, though, have to add a higher level of lyrical obnoxiousness to reach the depths of "She Never Cried When Ole Yeller Died," for which the offending lyricist should be sent to the iron maiden (the medieval torture device, not the band...nah, hell, to one than the other).

It wasn't until I gained a roommate who listened to old-school country (Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom T. Hall) where I started to get country, to understand its diversity. Moreover, Cash alone struck me as exponentially more honest than any New Country I've heard. If more people knew this was country, I suspected that maybe the genre wouldn't have such a bad name. In fact, now that I think of it, if I really wanted to get to my students, maybe I could just play them "Sangria Wine" or "Pancho & Lefty."

Most people, though, only have the negative/hokey/cheddar connotations with country music, and so, if they hear anything country-ish, tend to tune out. This includes accents (many Southerners I know hate anything where the singer has a drawl) and instrumentation (fiddle or steel guitar? must be hick!). Hell, I know more than one person who will dismiss a band's whole output if they have one acoustic-based G-C-D song...even if that band happens to be, say, Australian.

This all comes to mind because a few days ago, when I was sorting through my cd collection, I ran across my copy of Billy Squire's Don't Say No and decided to rip it to mp3 for nostalgia's sake. Earlier today, right before lunch, I played the album and live-tweeted my reactions under the hash-tag "isBillySquireStillListenable?" While I found myself still ultimately liking the album (after skipping over a few cheez-puff tracks such as "The Stroke" and ignoring the gloppy production), I kept finding myself thinking of the ineffable connection between country music and arena rock.

There was the obvious one where Squire is, on the cover, playing a Telecaster...which is typically considered a country guitar (though not always; it was in fact their use by the Jacksonville rock bands Radio Berlin and Piewackit which made me want one). There are country chord progressions all over the album, particularly in "I Need You, "My Kinda Lover," and "Don't Say No." True, this is still definitively a rock and roll album, but that doesn't mean country is forgotten. It might even be the nods to country which often contribute to its sing-a-long nature.

Moreover, this is significant in a historical sense. Rock and roll was originally the mad bastard stepchild of a marriage between blues and country music. If you trace rock back to Chuck Berry (as you should), you find yourself with an artist whose songs were remarkably close to country. Slowly, however, in the heavier and more extreme, the familiar country chord structure has been jettisoned, to the point where, in the rare instances we are open to its perception, we don't even recognize it.

Is country now passe? Permanently the land of stereotypes and hicks? Can one even hint at its presence in rock and roll without being castigated, tied to bales of hay and beaten with an old pair of chaps while wearing a crown of tumbleweed?

These are questions I now need to answer.

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