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The Country Gentleman

Andy Kershaw

Article from Making Music, May 1987


"Country music? I don't know what all the fuss is about... Er, yeah, but Andy Kershaw does. He loves the stuff, and what's more he's just won a Sony Radio Award for presenting the Best Specialist Music show, precisely because he's been championing that kind of twang.

Scribblin' Jon Lewin asks for recommendations on how the rock fan can get a passport into country without too much strain. Snappin' Paul Spencer gets down on it.

I 'DISCOVERED' country music through a bargain bin copy of the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" says Andy Kershaw. I expected it to be like 'Mr Tambourine Man', and it wasn't, but because I had so few records and tapes at the time, I just played it, and in the end thought it was bloody wonderful.

Then there was Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue". And when I first came to London, I wasn't just readying for Billy Bragg, I was also doing PR for Hank Wangford, who's obviously got a great knowledge of country music. He'd play me records and tell me what to listen to.

What I found appealing was the songs. I suppose the Byrds were just middle class Californian boys who liked country like I did, but when you go deeper into it, you come across men and women who leave you with no doubt that they've lived the songs they sing. There's a load of emotion in the best stuff — 80 or 90% is crap, but 10% is just stunning. The best stuff isn't sentimental — when Hank Williams sings "You're gonna change or I'm gonna leave", it's because the night before he was throwing his wife's belongings out onto the front lawn.

Country music is like pop or rock music — there's so many different styles within it — mountain, Nashville, Cajun, honky tonk. Basically it's the music of the working people from the east coast to Texas — a really rich thing. With the best stuff, it's soul, it's simple sounds, songs, sentiments — makes sense of complex relationships. Say what you mean, and if you haven't got anything to say, don't say it.

TERRY ALLEN:

Juarez
Terry Allen's from Lubbock, Texas, the same place as Buddy Holly. This early '70s LP is basically him and a piano, and occasionally a bit of guitar. He has one of them lived-in voices. There's something very bleak about it. I suppose it's an unfashionable thing to say, but it's a concept album. It's a good story about desperate people, and it's very witty too, memorable tunes, with a lot of wry Texan philosophy.

It's so Texan... the thing about Texas is it's so vast. It was such a melting pot for different styles. It was a place that a lot of immigrants came to, settlers that had moved west from Kentucky and Virginia, and a lot of German and east European settlers who had moved in. That's why there's a tradition of Texan polka stuff.

THE CARTER FAMILY:

20 Of The Best (RCA)
Their greatest hits. They recorded in the 1920s, and it's probably these people and Jimmie Rodgers who shaped country music as we know it today. This mountain stuff, coming from small communities tucked away in the hills; from this stuff comes the idea of community, of country music keeping people together.

The recording's primitive, but because the playing and the songs are so strong, it still comes through. Probably the best known song here is 'Wildwood Flower', stunning, a really beautiful song. The guitarist basically plays just the bass notes, and the rest is done with vocal harmony and auto-harp. As with a lot of the best country music that seems quite gay and sprightly on the surface, there's this dark undertow going on.

THE FLATLANDERS:

One Road More (Charly)
Again, this is Texan, and more recent. It was recorded in the early 70s by these youths who went on to do things in their own right. Joe Ely's in it, Butch Hancock, and one of my favourite country singers ever, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. This is an all-acoustic band — they even have a musical saw — doing standards and their own material. One of my favourite songs is on this, Gilmore's "Did You Ever See Dallas From a DC9 At Night?" The playing and Gilmore's voice make this.

GEORGE JONES:

Heartaches & Hangovers (Rounder)
Because that's what a lot of it's about, and if anybody knows about them, he does. He's more involved in the honky-tonk life styles where 'family morals' aren't quite so important. Honky tonks were bars, by the way, and honky tonk music's hard driving rhythms, high pitch vocals, and relatively brash guitar evolved so it would cut through the noise.

It's just the voice that appeals with George Jones — a voice like no other. He could be backed by Bogshed and I'd still buy the records. George Jones stands for pain and loneliness: listen to this from 'Things Have Gone To Pieces Since You Left Me': "Someone threw a baseball through my window/And the arm fell off my favourite chair today". Pain!

KENTUCKY COLONELS:

On Stage (Rounder)
Breathtaking instrumentals. They're not as celebrated as Bill Munroe or Flatt & Scruggs, but they're my favourite bluegrass band. There's Clarence White, who went on to join The Byrds. On the cover of this he looks like he'd try to sell you a bible; on the Byrds' "Untitled", he looks more like someone who might sell you some drugs. But The Colonels were absolutely stunning, and a lot of it was down to Clarence White's guitar playing.

So how do you produce a blue grass record? You have one microphone, and when you want one instrument louder than another, that instrument physically moves forward closer to the mike, and the others move back. They all stand around in a semi-circle, and when a solo's coming up, one of them just jumps into the middle, and when he's finished, he jumps out again!

The funny thing about bluegrass and a lot of country is that it really drives, and yet there are no drums on it. The rhythm and drive comes from the off-beat on the guitar, and the bass, I think. I'm not very musical, I just like it when I hear it.

JERRY LEE LEWIS:

Another Place Another Time (Smash)
You mention his name, and people think 'Great Balls Of Fire', 'Whole Lotta Shakin', but in the sixties he started to make some immense country records, really good. Again, a guy who knows what he's talking about: when he sings "What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me," he's telling you what he was doing last night. He's actually done more country than rock & roll.

THE LOUVIN BROTHERS:

Tragic Songs Of Life (Rounder)
These are the boys. It's just so pure, is this, just guitar and mandolin and voices. Individually Charlie and Ira Louvin weren't distinctive singers, but when you put the two voices together, something really weird happens that makes those hairs stand up on the back of your head. Ira was a great mandolin player as well — the records have that high mountain purity.

They are perfection — a natural perfection. Someone said that you can only sing like that if you're family, and your voices are similar; on the evidence of the Blue Sky Boys, and the Louvins, this is true.

LORETTA LYNN:

The Loretta Lynn Story (MFP)
When she sings "Don't come home a-drinking with lovin' on your mind", there's billions of women who agree. 'Coal Miner's Daughter' — have you seen the film? — is an autobiography in a song... when she gets to the last verse and almost shouts "yet I'm proud to be a...". Lump in the throat.

She represents a certain strength, and blue collar dignity. A lot of people miss the humour in country — times may be bloody tough for these people, but there's still this humour that keeps them going in the face of adversity.

That's why at one time it could have been described as the biggest music in America. Lots of people who have boring mundane jobs, don't have any kind of glamour, and are poor, downtrodden... somebody gets up on a stage and sings about those very same situations, and they can identify with it. 'One's On The Way' here is probably the best example of a celebration of being ordinary. White blues.

WILLIE NELSON:

The Redheaded Stranger (CBS)
This is again a concept album; he's just finished making a film of this. It came out in 1975. One of my favourite Willie Nelson songs is on this, "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain", which is basically just him and the guitar.

Another record that really made country for me was a live LP of Willie Nelson's, "Willie & Family Live", which is one of the best live records I've heard. The Family Band blows a bloody gale when it wants to, but he never raises his thin little voice — he's always just talking to you, even when the band are really flying. And he has that kind of saintly charisma as well...

JIMMIE RODGERS:

20 Of The Best (RCA)
The Singing Brakeman. After the Carter family, I suppose this was the other bloke who introduced that blues feel to country. It's very simple stuff, and his guitar picking is really attractive.

Me favourite song here is 'Waiting For A Train'; I like songs about trains. Travel's very important to American music. People wonder why we don't have romantic songs about riding from Nottingham to Crewe; that's because it doesn't involve a complete change in scenery and lifestyle, and take ages to do. It's got a lot to do with America being such a fooking vast place.

A lot of early country was made by working class whites who were no better off than the blacks. They were listening to black stuff as well as country — like Jimmie Rodgers is nearly all blues. That's what helped folk music in America evolve into country music.

For Jimmie's last recordings they were having to hold him upright in the studio because he'd got TB.

HANK WILLIAMS:

40 Greatest Hits (MGM)
Not to be confused with his preposterous son. He recorded for a surprisingly short period: made his first record in 1946, and died on New Year's Day 1953. He always looked about 45, but actually was only 29 when he died. I think one of the reasons he looked like that was that he crammed so much in, he lived so much while he was alive...

But he sang them like no-one else. That, and sex played an important part. Before hand, country singers had been about as sexy as the Pope. He just had an honesty and a rapport with the listener that no-one else had. These songs are very confidential; you feel like he's telling you, 'that was a bloody terrible business last night — I feel so lonesome I could cry'. He sounds like he's about to drop dead — a voice full of loneliness. Read Chet Flippo's biography, 'Your Cheatin' Heart'.

DWIGHT YOAKAM:

Guitars & Cadillacs (WEA)
He's the best of the New Country players. The dynamics on this LP are brilliant — great production, with big highs and lows.

The best country songs are about survival, a matter of life and death — when you're listening to this sort of stuff, you'll never ask the singer 'why are you telling me this?' Nothing superfluous.

And there should be honourable mentions for all the people I've left out... Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Munroe & his Blue Grass Boys — he invented bluegrass — Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, early Dolly Parton... Most of these people have got extraordinary backgrounds, and if they sing about hardship, they probably have been brought up in a family of 12 and had no shoes — it's not PR.



Previous Article in this issue

Bargain Bin Boogie

Next article in this issue

Studio Speak


Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987

Interview by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> Bargain Bin Boogie

Next article in this issue:

> Studio Speak


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