Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Country Album Primer

The word is that Ken Burns' "Country Music" series has sparked a sudden surge in country album sales. Folks who heretofore disdained country music are suddenly interested because it was featured on PBS. But where to start? Hank Williams? His songs, while superbly written, have that old-timey, antiquated sound. Johnny Cash? Download one track ~ they all sound the same. Don't waste precious dollars on a whole album until you understand what you're getting into. Nothing too twangy ~ the neighbors might be appalled. That eliminates Dwight Yoakam. Patsy Cline is pretty safe; her songs were "pretty" and featured lots of strings.

My advice:  Start with 1975. Emmylou Harris's second album, Elite Hotel, was a revelation to a jaded country fan like me. There is little good to say about country music in the nineteen seventies ~ it had lackadaisically bumped up against the doldrums. However, every decade of music has at least one breakout star, and Emmylou Harris was that. I don't recall, but I think I first heard a single by Emmylou, "If I Could Only Win Your Love", on my car radio. I had no idea who the singer was, and if I didn't catch the DJ's patter at the right time, I wouldn't find out until the next time the track was played. She was definitely country, updated; with the voice of an angel. Elite Hotel, featuring songs written by the likes of Buck Owens, newcomer Rodney Crowell, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Don Gibson, and even Lennon/McCartney; the album combined old and new and still sounded "old". Or perhaps "classic" is a better term. Emmylou was a vocalist who didn't dismiss country or try to change it. She simply improved upon it.

For the country novice, what could be better? It combines Hank and Patsy and Buck; it introduces a soon-to-be classic songwriter; it harks back to the sixties country-rock sound of bands like The Byrds.

To wit, here is a country primer for the newly-converted:

"Amarillo" ~ co-written by Emmylou and Rodney Crowell:



"Together Again" ~ Buck Owens:



"Feelin' Single, Seein' Double" ~ the awesome Wayne Kemp:



"Sin City" ~ Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman:



"One Of These Days" ~ Earl Montgomery:



"Till I Gain Control Again" ~ Rodney Crowell (again):



"Here, There and Everywhere" ~ some guys named John and Paul:



"Ooh, Las Vegas" ~ Gram Parsons and Ric Grech:



"Sweet Dreams" ~ Don Gibson:



"Jambalaya" ~ Hank Williams:



"Satan's Jewel Crown" ~ Edgar L. Eden:



"Wheels" ~ Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons:



My favorite? For sheer beauty, it's "Together Again". For reminiscence, "One Of These Days". But I think I like "Wheels" the best.

Elite Hotel combines everything a country lover or country novice could ask for in a classic album. For a forty-four year-old album, that's damn good.

I would start here.






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