This article was originally posted to Smells Like Pop, the West Coast’s funkiest smelling music blog.
On more than one occasion during my foolish youth I recall saying, “I have very eclectic musical tastes. I listen to everything, except country-western of course.” That all changed for me this year. What happened, you ask?
Short answer: I bought a ukulele.
The ukulele got me interested in lots of “new” right-hand strumming and finger-picking techniques. It taught me how to use my thumb to hold down a bass line while my other fingers pick out a melody. This technique is a mainstay in country music. Also, the steel guitar, which is so closely associated with country music, is a Hawaiian invention. In searching out ukulele tunes to learn, I became mesmerized by the sound of steel guitar. There are many recordings that blur the line between vintage country-string music and traditional Hawaiian music. Listen to King Bennie Nawahi and, most significantly, Roy Smeck.
The long answer as to how I gained a rather sudden appreciation of country-western music follows:
Growing up in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I didn’t know anyone except a few older relatives who listened to country music. It seemed like a quaint relic from the past. It wasn’t to be heard in the neighborhoods of suburban LA. It didn’t come up in later years in San Francisco either; country music simply wasn’t part of the landscape.
In retrospect, my objections were mostly cultural: country music was for red states and I lived in blue states. This point is still largely true. In fact my new-found appreciation for country-western music can be credited to the influence of a neighbor, who goes in for lots of Republican-candidate signs each election cycle.
Regardless of any preconceptions you may have, if you’ve never before given country-western music a chance, it’s time to give it a listen.
My first bit of advice for a crash course in country-music appreciation is skip past the last 25 years of country music. I’m sure there were hundreds of great recordings made during these years, but you’ll have to find out about those recordings from someone else. I suggest you dig deeper beneath the surface, all the way down to the roots of country music. There’s a wonderful, rich history there that very nearly passed me by.
Give a listen to some of these great vintage country tracks:
- Rocky Top, Tennessee - A Tennessee anthem, this tune has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years. It’s a celebration of Appalachian bluegrass and simpler days gone by. I recommend the Osborne Brothers’ 1960′s-era Decca recording. The link here is to a video of a much more recent performance.
- The Delmore Brothers – “Freight Train Boogie”
Growing up in Alabama at the turn of the century, these guys came at country music with gospel harmonies and the fast picking style they heard in Appalachian spirituals. This type of country music has a distinct jazzy groove to it.
- J. E. Mainer and His Mountaineers – “Oh, Those Tombs”
There’s an acceptance of tragedy in the lyrics of these early “hillbilly country” tunes. This stringband music emerged out of poverty and the expectation that life would be short and brutish. “Let your teardrops kiss the flowers on my grave,” goes one of the lines.
- O’Brother, Where Art Though (movie soundtrack)
This T. Bone Burnett produced soundtrack is a goldmine of modern-day recordings of depression-era bluegrass, country, gospel, and folk standards. It joyfully explores the musical styles that influenced the early days of country.
Other Not-To-Be-Missed Country Treats:
- Chet Atkins – ‘Orange Blossom Special’
- Johhny Cash – ‘Get Rhythm’
- Rosalie Allen – Country yodel in ‘Wide Rolling Plains’
- Sons of the Pioneers – ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’
- Hank Williams – ‘Honky Tonkin’
- Oak Ridge Boys – ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon’
- Statler Brothers – ‘Flowers on the Wall’
- Patsy Cline – ‘I Fall to Pieces’
By the way, you can skip Charlie Daniels completely. Although he wrote that cool “Devil Went Down to Georgia” song that you used to like, he’s best left for the red states to enjoy.