Just for the record: Country women do it darker and dirtier
A bi-weekly vinyl review
Recently, two old-fashioned radio jocks — “old-fashioned” in the sense that they curate their own shows and actually play records — took to social media with comments that, perhaps unintentionally, reflect how poorly local broadcasters serve music fans.
Benjy Mudie, who presents golden oldies shows for 702 and Cape Talk, was perhaps the most direct. “I’m going to come out and say it,” he posted on Facebook, “modern pop music is shit. Period.”
Of course, Mudie had to admit that there were some exceptions. The two examples that he gave were the R&B singer Rag ’n’ Bone Man, the “British Breakthrough Act” winner at the 2017 Brit Awards, and the French electronica artist Héloïse Letissier, who performs under the stage name Christine and the Queens. (My thoughts exactly.)But, he charged, most of today’s acts were a largely talentless and tin-eared bunch who “look and sound like they came out of the same amorphous, grey sausage machine” and not a patch on the “real pop icons” of the 1970s and 1980s. (We’ll ignore, for now, the fact that as a former music industry executive, Mudie was very much part of that machine.)
Elsewhere on Facebook, Chris Prior offered a mea culpa that cast some doubt about the title of his Rock Professor Show, broadcast on Radio Today Johannesburg and streaming on DStv: a listener, he said, had complained that he was quite ignorant about female rock and blues musicians.
“I freely admit my guilt,” Prior wrote. There were no excuses; he had tried his best, he said, to play more music by women, but it was a “struggle” to find artists of the calibre of Joni Mitchell, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Shocked, Patti Smith, Shawn Colvin, Maria Muldaur and the other ladies lucky enough to get a spin on his show.He appealed for suggestions. Who, besides female “pop stars”, should he be playing?
Hmmm. Perhaps both Mudie and Prior should broaden their horizons a bit and spend time on the really dark side — and that is country.
Broadly speaking, nothing brings out the bigotry among the tin-eared and strait-laced quite as vehemently as the mere mention of the “c” word. Despite its undeniable influence — there’d be no Elvis or rock ’n’ roll without country, for a start — the antipathy is perhaps understandable.
Modern mainstream country, what with all the lunkheaded “bros” in hats and double denim, remains a largely conservative genre, both in form and content, appealing to a largely conservative audience. (The same is perhaps true of any genre, and there’s no lunkhead, in my opinion, quite as lunkheaded as the blues-rock lunkhead.)
But country is not as rigid as other genres, and its mainstream is now being subverted by a slew of artists, mainly women, who do the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll thing, not to mention death and divorce, deeper, dirtier and more dangerously than any of rock’s so-called golden gods.
My own journey into what is now broadly defined as “Americana” began with Bob Dylan (more of whom later), but it swerved into left-field in the late 1980s, when I came across Canadian outfit Cowboy Junkies’ sublime The Trinity Session (RCA), a pared-down, atmospheric set that radically interpreted, on one end of the spectrum, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams standards and, on the other, the Velvet Underground.The fact that The Trinity Session was recorded in a single night in a church with just one microphone made it all the more astonishing. It was remastered and re-released, with two extra tracks, as a double LP by RCA/Music on Vinyl last year.
A similar lo-fi ethos pervaded The Handsome Family’s Through The Trees (Carrot Top Records). More gothic than goth itself, this was husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks’s alt.country breakthrough, a collection of dark, romantic tales that provided the template for the albums that followed.A quirky, if unsettling meander through the urban frontier, its songs include reflections on suicide, drunken motel rooms, a harrowing spell in a psychiatric ward and, according to Rennie, “an infected toe”. It has just been released on vinyl for the first time, by UK’s Loose label, as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations.
Jumping to the present, and the raw outlaw honky tonk of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers.Shook’s backstory is the stuff of country itself. Born to an impoverished, peripatetic and deeply religious family who forbade any non-Christian music around the house, she sought escape at an early age and did so by marrying, at 20, a man she’d met on the Internet a fortnight earlier. She fell pregnant soon afterwards and left her husband within a year.She released her self-financed debut, Sidelong, in 2015, which was duly picked up by Chicago’s “insurgent” country label, Bloodshot Records, who also released her latest, Years, which takes its title, Shook has said, from “picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after years of being trampled and beaten down”.Here, then, are songs of survival and fortitude steeped in alcohol. Songs like Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t and The Bottle Never Lets Me Down suggest booze may well be more reliable a companion than any man she’s known.
Shook’s Bloodshot label mate Lydia Loveless mines a similar vein with her albums, Indestructible Machine and Real.The Nikki Lane albums, All or Nothin’ and Highway Queen (both New West), are also worth checking out.The biggest new names, though, are Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves. The former, a singer-songwriter whose retro stylings have found a sympathetic home on Jack White’s Third Man Records, cites as a chief influence Loretta Lynn, but there the similarities end.Her rough-edged 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, recorded at Memphis’s famed Sun Studios, revealed that she had a savvy saloon-sharpened knack for narrative and a keen eye for detail which kept her brand of traditionalism from seeming too much like nostalgia.
As the title suggests, her sophomore effort, last year’s All American Made, draws on a broad palette of American roots music.Here are splashes of R&B, Tex-Mex, girl group pop, indie and even psyched out trippiness. There is also protest and anger, this being a record made in the Trump era.
Which brings us to Musgraves and her new album, Golden Hour (Universal), which is receiving rave reviews across the spectrum on both sides of the Atlantic.Like her major label debut, 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park, this is not the work of an iconoclast but rather an album that broadens modern country’s outlook. And how.
“Grandma cried,” Musgrave sings, “when I pierced my nose”. It’s not something you’d find in songs by other mainstream Nashville artists. Neither are LGTBQ rights.Or the revelation that she was tripping on acid when her mother sent her a text message with a photograph of her hands. Not for nothing has she been hailed as the artist who is going to save country from itself, and Golden Hour, initial copies of which are released on white vinyl, could be the crossover album to do just that.If, however, the above seems a bit too white bread and “pop” for your ears, then Rhiannon Giddens, a founder-member of the old time country blues and jug band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, could be just the ticket to cope with the culture shock.Her acclaimed solo debut, 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch), featured a cover of Dolly Parton’s Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind as well as Last Kind Words, a song written and recorded in 1930 by Geeshie Wiley, who, according to one academic, “may well have been the rural South's greatest female blues singer and musician”.Giddens’s next album, last year’s Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), has less of a country flavour, but is compelling Americana all the same.THE ESSENTIAL LIBRARY
Bob Dylan’s fairly direct when it comes the advantages of vinyl over the compact disc. “You listen to these modern records,” he’s been quoted as saying, “they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static. Even these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded ’em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like: ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like: ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.’”Any halfway decent vinyl collection, of course, should include several Dylan albums, but the most essential are the three he made in that furious, 14-month burst of creativity from 1965 to 1966 when he practically invented rock music: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde (all reissued by Columbia Legacy/Sony Music). You can argue and debate for hours, as most Dylan nuts do, about which is the better album, and which is most important, but it’s best to short-circuit the process and plumb for the blessed trinity defence. Get them all. And preferably in punchy mono, too.
It’s hard thinking of the mega-selling Automatic For The People, the album that made R.E.M. the biggest band in the world, as something of a rarity. But it was released in 1992 at a time when vinyl was practically obsolete.At the time, very few vinyl copies were issued by Warner Brothers Records — the serial number to look for is 945055-1 — and mint copies of this original US release are now trading at around R5,500; and near-mint copies between R2,000 and R3,500 a pop. The 25th anniversary edition, from Craft Recordings, remastered and released 180g vinyl, can be yours however for about R350.