Musical Interlude (“On the Path of Decent Groove”): Country

On the one hand, I have to admit that country isn’t my favorite musical genre. On the other, I still have a certain fondness for it, particularly songs with whacked out lyrics (such as shaggy dog tales along the lines of “My man done left me with 25 cents in the bank and a broken down car and didn’t shut the refrigerator so the milk went bad”).

I’ve always been fond of the final scene of Nashville. Here, the woman in white, Barbara Jean, a country icon attempting a comeback after a burn accident and some uneven performances, sings a typical elaborate story, albeit more cheerful and therefore less tawdry than the sort I like. The final singer, Winifred, who director Robert Altman has conditioned his audience to see as a no-talent wannabe, was played by the marvelous Barbara Harris.

Growing up with Ode to Billy Joe no doubt had a formative effect on what I thought “country” should be:

Bob H provided some other examples:

Del McCoury Band: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert:

Doc Watson – Deep River Blues

Norman Blake – Six White Horses:

I must admit to thinking of county music as all about narrative, but there are some great instrumental piece, like The David Grier Band “Salt Creek”:

And if you’d like to decompose it:

We’ve focused on contemporary music. How about some older genres, say polyphony, or foreign folk music?

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  1. Pat

    Gentry was all about narrative. She also took on being a courtesan/prostitute/gold digger as a necessary strategy of survival in 1969, shocking even with the lottery winning outcome.


    And today I don’t think you can ignore the classic
    Take This Job and….

  2. vlade

    I’d put here Czech band Druha Trava, which actually spends quite a bit of time on the US circuit and its banjo player, Lubos Malina is considered the best European banjo player (which adimttedly may not be that much of a competition – no idea). People who toured with them include people like Charlie McCoy and Tony Trishka.

    I like them for their lyrics too, which are actually not very optiimstic But here is a couple of instrumentals. Although I found one in English too.

    1. vlade

      This is probably not entirely the right place, but non-English rock could be a future post.. Although say , “Poezd v ogne” ([this] train’s on fire) from Russian band Akvarium is more folk-rock than rock. But then Soviet-bloc underground was a genre to itslef IMO, and often was really about lyrics *) as much, or even more than music.

      *) lyrics of the song I linked to is about dying days of Soviet Afghan intervention. You can see there that the forever war isn’t only the US’s problem.

      “And I have seen generals
      They drink and eat our death
      Their children are going crazy
      Cause there’s nothing left that they don’t have
      And our land lies in rust
      Our churches are burnt.
      If we want to have a home to return to
      Now is the time to return.”

    1. urblintz

      This is fun – Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash & friends:

      Glen Campbell was a huge talent and although he gained global popularity/fame more through the crossover hits, his heart and soul was country. Masterful guitarist… and that incredible voice.

      Here he is at 72, simple, beautiful and flawless music making:

      with Roy Clark:

      and perhaps his most popular crossover, a great song:

        1. festoonic

          When Little Richard called himself the most beautiful man in show business he was not wrong.

  3. Henry Moon Pie

    There is country music without the flag-waving.

    I enjoyed the Luckenbach crowd back in the day:

    Luckenbach, Texas

    Mama, Don’t Let…

    And Merle Haggard is always interesting:

    A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today

    Okie from Muskogee

    The spouse and I joined a couple nearly 50 years ago in a hour-long trek to a VFW hall in a tiny town in NE Kansas for some Saturday night fun. After passing around a couple of joints in the parking lot, we went in a danced to the local band’s version of “Okie from Muskogee.”

    Then there’s Merle’s song that would send the IdPol folks into a tizzy:

    (surprised you can still find it on YouTube)

  4. Eustachedesaintpierre

    That old What do you get if you play a Country song backwards………..

    Ode to Billie Joe was the only Country song I liked for a long time from when it first appeared in the British charts….love how it presents a picture of an ordinary family meal, while the details of what makes it a murder ballad are passed around like the peas.

    Since the 90’s I have picked up a pile of Country songs that somehow turned up mainly by way of films, featuring various artists. I’m a big fan of Gillian Welch – Hard Times from Paper Moon which I saw late & the song Tennesee which is a tragic blues among many other of her songs.

    My Stepson who was a young Goth surprised me by getting into Country music, of which he sent me a CD from Kris Kristofferson one birthday a while back which gradually had me hooked, while the album title song This Old Road becomes more relevant with every passing year.

    “This Old Road”

    Look at that old photograph
    Is it really you
    Smiling like a baby full of dreams

    Smiling ain’t so easy now
    Some are coming true
    Nothing’s simple as it seems

    But I guess you count your blessings with the problems
    That you’re dealing with today
    Like the changing of the seasons

    Ain’t you come a long way
    Ain’t you come a long way
    Ain’t you come a long way down
    This old road

    Looking at a looking glass
    Running out of time
    On a face you used to know

    Traces of a future lost
    In between the lines
    One more rainbow for the road

    Thinking of the faces in the window
    That you passed along the way
    Or the last thing you believed in


    Say you tried to chase the sundown
    And you let it slip away
    And the holy night is falling


    Look at that old photograph
    Is it really you?

  5. lyman alpha blob

    Del McCoury did a great album with Steve Earle several years ago. Here’s one from that album with a Maine theme and an Irish twist – Dixieland

    And if you’re going to have a country themed musical interlude, you have to include the greatest country and western song ever written at least according to the singer David Allen Coe and I think he makes a good case for it- You Never Even Call Me by My Name

    One of my favorite genres are the old Greek folk songs called rebetika. They’re from the early 20th century and it’s working class music from the urban poor, sung in the streets and tavernas and they are full of shaggy dog stories, very similar like US country music if you replace getting drunk with smoking hash. I’m not fluent enough in Greek to understand all the lyrics and don’t get all the cultural connotations, but from what I understand you still don’t really want to play rebetika in certain polite company. I used to work in a Greek restaurant and got to choose the background music but my boss would make me turn off the rebitika when customers came in – he was afraid of ticking off any Greeks who might understand the music. I would also get some looks in Greece when, thinking I was clever for picking up new words, I’d refer to friends as ‘manga’, a term used in rebetika that I think loosely translates as ‘tough guy’ or ‘big guy’. Evidently it has other connotations too…

    Anyway, here’s one from Soteria Bellou, a woman who was singing in a primarily male music genre – Συννεφιασμένη κυριακή The Greek translates as ‘Cloudy Sunday’ and it’s always reminded me of the old American blues standard ‘Stormy Monday’.

    Bellou really was a woman ahead of her time and had a very interesting life to say the least. She threw acid in her abusive husband’s face, fought the Nazis, was beaten up by fascists, and was an open lesbian at a time when that was exceedingly rare. More on her for those interested –

    1. urblintz

      Here’s “Horos tou Zolongou” (Χορός του Ζαλόγγου) sung by the the Souliotes women as they plunged of a cliff in mass suicide rather than succumb to the Ottoman:

      “Farewell poor world,
      Farewell sweet life,
      and you, my poor country,
      Farewell for ever

      Farewell springs,
      Valleys, mountains and hills
      Farewell springs
      And you, women of Souli

      The fish cannot live on the land
      Nor the flower on the sand
      And the women of Souli
      Cannot live without freedom”

      the meter is 7/4 anchoring the popular “kalamatiano” dance form

    2. birdsmouth

      Speaking of DA Coe, his son Tyler has a terrific podcast devoted to country music: Cocaine and Rhinestones.

    1. Conrad Schumacher

      We can’t make it here anymore is a great take on off shoring manufacturing and its effects as well. Larry saw what was up 20 years ago. And his dad wrote the best Western novel ever.

      Drive by Truckers have some great songs. And I really like Luke Combs’ Forever after all despite its sappiness. Nashville seems to be full of incredible musicians.

  6. ChiGal in Carolina

    Yves’ examples are mostly of what is called bluegrass rather than country. You can’t talk about country without mentioning Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, etc.

    Agree Man in Black is a song for the ages.

    Then there’s alt country: Lucinda! And Jinnie Dale, whom Lambert is fond of quoting.

    And always been partial to that insouciant tramp in George Jones’s King of the Road—“I smoke old stogies I have found, short but not too big around”

    1. lordkoos

      I was about to mention Lucinda Williams… what a great songwriter!

      Here’s a great one by her —

      For fans of C&W, the podcast “Cocaine and Rhinestones” is essential listening, an obsessive and uncensored history of country music:

      The producer is Tyler Mahan Coe, son of David Allen Coe. He also has complete transcripts of every podcast on the site if you prefer to read them. Best to start with season one and listen to them in order.

      1. ChiGal in Carolina

        Country is a pretty wide-ranging genre. I would put Elvis in the crossover/rockabilly category but he went on to become one of the great crooners. Johnny Cash can’t be pigeon-holed.

        btw I am not knocking bluegrass. Dunno if they have started it up again but I used to go to Bean Blossom in Brown County, IN every year—Bill Monroe’s outdoor music festival. Many awesome musicians. Del McCoury had gotten to be too big of a star by then for such a humble venue but they tour a lot so I have seen him many times. Their footwork around the single mike is a wonder to behold but apparently he is quite the taskmaster and nowadays sometimes the band (his sons) play without him.

        The best bluegrass event I attended was seeing Ralph Stanley in a smallish club in the Chicago suburbs. That piercing voice! It was a very intense experience.

        1. Robert Hahl

          This reminds me of an old joke: “He plays in all the styles, country and western.”

          Here is my favorite cover of Hank Williams: Youtube makes you sign in because they are playing on railroad tracks. I flattened many pennies doing that.

          Jambalaya – Reina del Cid and Toni Lindgren

      2. paul

        I think we can safely say John Cash is sui generis.
        He was a founder member of the million dollar quartet, goodness knows what they would be valued at in these heady times!

        Scotty Moore alone sounded like he was just sightseeing from another planet.

  7. lyman alpha blob

    One more from modern day Renaissance man Terry Allen from his album Lubbock (On Everything) – Amarillo Highway.

    Love the lyrics to this one. For the poker players out there –

    I’m a high straight in Plainview
    Side bet in Idalou
    And a fresh deck in New Deal
    Yeah, some call me high hand
    And some call me low hand
    But, I’m holding what I am, the wheel

    I’m panhandlin’
    Man handlin’
    Post holin’
    High rollin’
    Dust Bowlin’ Daddy
    And I ain’t got no blood veins
    I just got them four lanes
    Of hard Amarillo Highway

    I don’t wear no Stetson
    But I’m willin’ to bet, son
    That I’m a big a Texan as you are
    There’s a girl in her barefeet
    ‘Sleep on the back seat
    An that trunk is full of Pearl and Lone Star

    So gonna hop outta bed
    Pop a pill in my head
    Yeah, bust the Hub for the Golden Spread
    Under blue skies
    Gonna stuff my hide
    Behind some power glide
    And get some southern fried back in my eyes

    And close I’ll ever get to Heaven
    Is makin’ speed up ol’ 87
    Of that hard-ass Amarillo Highway

  8. farmboy

    Somewhere in some comment by Ted Gioia, he makes the case for two basic needs music arose from. One, the need for rhythm in ritual and work and Two, the herdsman’s need to calm his flock. Bluegrass, and country although a modern blend of the two styles is heavy on the plaintiff plea by the shepherd for his “doggies” to come home. I’d even go so far as to say classical music is ear candy for the flock and the Indian sitar is god calling his children. Anyway Ted Gioia for you reading pleasure

  9. shinola

    IMO, Hank Williams(Sr) was one of the greatest song writers of the 20th century. So many other artists covered his songs, from Ray Charles to the Grateful Dead.

    Hmm, in the country-rock category, I haven’t see The New Riders of the Purple Sage mentioned yet…

    “Panama Red! Panama Red! He’ll steal your woman then he’ll rob your head…”

  10. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Country as far as I can tell is a big thing in Ireland, Garth Brookes being I believe a big part of that. The BBC around 25 years ago did a documentary called Bringing it all back home which I didn’t see on the back & forth musical influences across the Atlantic.

    37 tracks on the soundtrack album featuring a Who’s who of Irish trad musicians with some who were contemporary at that time like Elvis Costello, The Waterboys & The Hothouse Flowers. A Cork Bluegrass band called the Lee Valley String Band & 2 tracks one being a murder ballad from the Everly Brothers.

    Harking back to the post on Irish music 2 beautiful tracks for me would have been at home there -Liam O’ Flynn’s Easter Snow & Carolan’s farewell to music on harp by Maire Ni Chathasaigh – funny that during the 18th century it was Northern Irish Presbyterians that mainly promoted the blind harpists & recorded the music for posterity until the crushing of the 1798 rebellion.

  11. norm de plume

    Uncle Dave oughta be here somewheres.

    This song’s lyrics provide a list of others who have claims to belong to any serious country thread.

    On the same album are several examples of great country songs that manage to do without words altogether.

  12. Lena

    I would recommend Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt who, like Hank Williams, passed away too young. Van Zandt wrote “Pancho and Lefty”. Also two of the most beautiful love songs ever composed: “If I Needed You” and “I’ll Be Here in the Morning”.

    1. Norm de plume

      Partial to Nothin’, Kathleen, Waitin to Die, Marie ( the version with Willie) and St John the Gambler.
      Cheerful stuff!

  13. orlbucfan

    Talk about a classic crossover, country blues cover, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by the late, great Isaac Hayes. I am not a C&W fan, but there are exceptions to every rule.

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