Saturday, September 21, 2019
By the end of the 1990's, I will have abandoned country music forever. But, oh, the nineties!
It may have been the times, but I don't think so. I do believe that "music is life through the ears of the beholder", as my blog's theme states, but there was something special about country in the nineties. Randy and George and Dwight had primed the pump the decade before, which allowed the artists of the nineties to soar. Too, I was in the prime of my life, at age thirty-five. And in the prime of what, unbeknownst to me, would become my "career". Blue skies shone above. Like country music, I didn't know what awaited me, but I had a feeling it was something good.
People liked to dance ~ buoyant, shit-kicking dance. Not giving a damn about the wagging tongues of the neighbors next door. Line dance, two-step, stumblin' drape-your-arm-around-your-partner dance. Don a western shirt with spangles dance. We even liked Billy Ray Cyrus, cuz you could dance to him.
You couldn't flip on your car radio and not hear a song that didn't make you bounce in your bucket seat and warble off-key into the breeze whooshing outside your wide-open window. I sang along to "Friends In Low Places" roaring home from work in my white Ford Taurus, and I didn't even like Garth Brooks much.
I'd only recently returned to country music by the time the nineties rolled in, but I was fully committed. I even no longer wanted my MTV. Radio still ruled. Radio was everywhere ~ in our cars, at work, in the kitchen, on camping trips and in the backyard garden. There was no such thing as "streaming". One could barely figure out how to get online and even when we did, we looked around a bit and said, ehh. Country had caught up with the rock world, though, and country videos were available twenty-four hours a day on CMT.
New artists were popping out all over. And ladies (if that is the correct PC term), if you still believe that country is lagging in the female artist department (which never was true, by the way), welcome to the nineties! In the decade there were as many hit songs recorded by women as by men. Maybe girl singers were simply more fun to listen to then, because they were joyous, rather than whiny.
Let's take a quick whoosh through the decade, shall we?
The year 1991 kicked off in grand country style, with a newly-formed duo (whatever happened to them?):
Another new act had a familiar last name,
Sometimes a song just hits you. It might not be sung by a well-known artist. It might be a passing fancy. Or it might just stay with you:
I liked this new guy. He had a cry in his voice, just like good country artists should. And this is a quintessential country song:
Speaking of dancin', try not to boogie to this. Joe Diffie was a huge country star in the nineties ~ people tend to forget. I don't.
I could go with a plethora of artists for my second pick, but let's be real. in 1993 Dwight Yoakam released his penultimate album that featured this:
Sorry, can't leave out Clay Walker:
Shoot me ~ I like this (a lot):
Again, shoot me; but this is an awesome recording. We can arm-wrestle over it, if you insist:
Nineteen ninety-five was a little lean in the "good hits" department. Thank goodness for Mark Chesnutt. I know I devoted an entire post to Mark, but if I'm culling the best singles of a particular year, this is definitely one:
Oh, remember her? She "ruined" country music, they said. Ha! I, too, was a bit skeptical of Shania Twain in the beginning, but let's compare Shania's songs to today's "country music", shall we? Here's the deal ~ she's an excellent songwriter. She found a niche; she exploited it. Deal.
I will end with 1996, just like Ken Burns did. It's fitting. Ken, a country music neophyte, was maybe onto something. After '96 country life took a downturn. We had the Dixie Chicks, who were okay, but not as awesome as their press wanted us to believe. McGraw and Hill (isn't that an encyclopedia company?) took over. An Australian, who, granted, could play a mean guitar solo but never ever recorded a distinctive track, won new artist of the year at the CMA's. Country was changing. And not in a good way. Somebody somewhere in the bowels of a Nashville office determined that fans didn't know what the hell they needed or wanted, and they were going to proceed to show them.
Bye bye, country.
Let's end on a high note, though, with The King:
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Unlike today when country music really is dead, by the dawn of the eighties I was convinced (erroneously) that my favorite music had bit the dust. I mostly gave up on listening at all, although a part of me kept checking in just to make sure I was right. Decades-long habits are tough to break.
Country was dominated by Kenny Rogers and a newly-pop Dolly Parton. Alabama was still clinging to the charts, but I was frankly tired of Alabama. In my little town, we didn't get a lot of concerts, but Alabama showed up almost once a year; thus I went, simply to see live music. They were the sort of group if asked one's opinion about them, we would say, "they're okay". I don't mean to knock Alabama; I just wasn't excited by their music. I caught a couple of artists on the radio I liked ~ new girl singer, Johnny Cash's daughter, Rosanne; and I still was a fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. The movie Urban Cowboy was released in 1980 and almost smothered country's breath. I saw the movie with my mom, because we both liked country; she superficially; me reminiscently. The soundtrack was not good. It was a gloppy stew of disjointed songs. And if I never again hear Lookin' For Love, I will consider myself blessed.
Sometime in the early eighties a new channel slipped into my cable lineup ~ MTV. I found that the songs were catchy and it seemed that, unlike country artists, the musicians really liked what they were doing. So I made the wrenching decision to forsake country completely. My car radio preset became pop station Y93. Ask me anything about eighties pop and I can tell you. Mention early Judds and I'd ask, "who?"
The eerie thing about skipping a few years of country was that I did it just as the genre was making a comeback, and I completely missed it. Who did I miss? The afore-mentioned Judds, George Strait, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam. I stopped in to visit my mom and dad one evening and they were watching a VHS tape of George Strait in concert. Of course, I didn't know who George Strait was, and I tossed my head derisively. I'm sure I clucked my tongue, too. The next day, just to make sure I'd been right, I twirled my car radio dial to the local country station and gave it a trial listen. I was flabbergasted to hear actual country songs, real country songs; and no longer analog. The steel and fiddles were so crystal-clear. The bass pounded like a heartbeat. There were drums! The artists seemed unafraid to burst forth with actual passion.
Damn! I'd missed it!
I heard others, whose names I'd eventually learn: Kathy Mattea, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Van Shelton, Restless Heart, Highway 101, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (who I knew, but not like this). Foster and Lloyd, Clint Black, Steve Wariner, Holly Dunn, Earl Thomas Conley, Marty Stuart.
I didn't stop watching MTV, but I found a new channel called CMT. It had music videos, too, and they were country! This whole revelation was mind-blowing! Maybe all it took was for me to go away for a while (unfortunately, that theory hasn't worked for the last 20 years).
I'm not completely convinced the nineteen eighties were the best decade for country music ~ the sixties and nineties are stiff competition ~ but the eighties roped me back in.
So, to celebrate September as Country Music Month, let's look back at the best songs of each tick of the eighties:
1982 (hey, I'm no music snob):
Sorry, too many. Here's a bonus:
I could go on and on and on, but I'll stop here.
Thank you, Randy Travis and George Strait, for re-inventing country music.
And thank you, Dwight Yoakam.
A couple or three of these songs were written by you, Rodney Crowell. I am in your debt.
This is country music.
There you go, Ken Burns.
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Country music in the seventies was such a schizophrenic time, it's almost impossible to sum up the decade in one post. Whereas in pop music, the sixties could be separated by a solid line right through the middle of the decade, the seventies in country music are more like thirds, or even fourths.
In 1970 Merle Haggard was still at his peak, with The Fightin' Side of Me; Conway Twitty had re-recorded and had a monstrous hit with Hello Darlin'; Ray Price had For The Good Times.
'71 saw Easy Loving by Freddie Hart; Sammi Smith's recording of Kristofferson's Help Me Make It Through The Night was huge. Conway and Loretta teamed up and recorded After The Fire Is Gone.
By 1972 record labels began flexing their muscle, and radio suffered the consequences. Even Merle and Faron Young became a bit poppier, with Carolyn and It's Four In The Morning, respectively. And the cringe-worthy Happiest Girl In The Whole USA shot to number one.
'73 still had some gems, like Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors, but it also produced dogs like Teddy Bear Song.
By 1974 we saw the likes of Olivia Newton-John and John Denver, pop singers, take over the charts. Even many of country's stalwarts buckled to record company demands and recorded covers of pop hits ~ it wasn't a good look. On the list of the top 100 singles of 1974 it's almost impossible to find a true country track. One of the only bright spots of that year was the emergence of a new guy named Ronnie Milsap.
And 1974 is kind of where I stopped.
I didn't stop completely, but I began to wean myself. The preset button on my car radio no longer landed on the country station. The emotion I most distinctly recall is disgust. I truly believed country music was gone forever, and it wasn't right. I'd given almost a decade of my musical existence over to country; had grown to cherish it, and it went and knifed me. Most of the country music I was even familiar with by now was the pond scum featured on network variety shows ~ Convoy by CW McCall and Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell.
One could find some real country if they searched long and hard enough. Gary Stewart and a new girl singer, Emmylou Harris, were recording real country. Merle even dipped a toe back in the country music brook. Then there was Gene Watson. I didn't miss out on these artists, because I became an album connoisseur and took a stab in the dark and plunked down three dollars and ninety-nine cents at Woolworth's solely on faith. Emmylou was giving corporate country a dainty middle finger and recording true country in the face of the pop-country pap radio was forced to play. Gene Watson was who he was, which was stone country, and take him or leave him, he reckoned. Gary Stewart was the hillbilly renaissance of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Around this time, Wanted: The Outlaws became a thing. Truth be told, The Outlaws was a compilation LP put together solely by a producer in Nashville. This was no concept album by any stretch. But it took over, much like the Urban Cowboy soundtrack hijacked the airwaves. I'd loved Waylon Jennings since 1967, so there was no "discovery". The Outlaws was a new Waylon, and I was okay with it; but it wasn't the "best country album of all time", regardless of what fable Rolling Stone Magazine tries to foist upon us.
And this is where my consumer story comes in. I grew weary of kneeling on the living room carpet to spin Gary and Emmylou on my mom and dad's castoff console stereo. The built-in fabric-covered speakers had one setting, and poor as I was, I was ready to step into the new audio world. One Saturday I scuttled off to a little sound shop ensconced inside a crumbling strip mall and innocently placed myself in the greasy salesman's hands. "This new Swedish company, Bang and Olufsen, has these speakers that are bad!" They were definitely ponderous, as was the price tag. Inside that little shop, everything sounded exactly the same, but boy, these B&O's were big! Oh well, I had my BankAmericard inside my crocheted shoulder bag. What the heck? Throw in that Technics turntable and the Pioneer receiver!
Merle's "Movin' On" LP did sound better on my new setup. Though there were few current albums worth purchasing, I made the most of what I already owned. As 1976 dawned, I discovered a couple of new artists who were different, and thus good. Eddie Rabbitt was one of those. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers were the other.
'77 produced a hit that struck me, "Stranger" by Johnny Duncan with a nameless female singing strong backup (who we eventually would learn was named Janie Fricke). A group previously ensconced in gospel suddenly began releasing country singles. They went by the old-fashioned moniker of "Oak Ridge Boys". On the minus side, Dave and Sugar, a thoroughly stupid name, became huge, and yep, I fell for it, too. I bought their albums, even though it was impossible to keep up with their changing personnel.
1978 was mostly forgettable, except for the rise of another artist who would take country even further from its roots. Thanks, Kenny Rogers. And, of course, Barbara Mandrell scorched everyone's eardrums with "Sleepin' Single In A Double Bed". There was, though, John Conlee's "Rose Colored Glasses".
Nothing much changed in 1979. The cast of players didn't change. The only memorable hit was by a folk-pop group called "The Dirt Band". Gosh, whatever happened to those guys?
If a year produces at the most two great songs, I'd label that a failure, which is essentially my take on the seventies. I think my fondest memories of the seventies were albums by Julio Iglesias (seriously) and Marty Robbins (very seriously). Is it any wonder I threw my hands in the air and surrendered?
However, let's not just let the decade go without reviewing the best.
Bonus Track #2 (Rodney Crowell!):
Bonus Track #3:
1979 (written by Rodney Crowell):
Gotta use this one, because the song is not the same without Linda Ronstadt:
If one is an easy grader, the seventies weren't all that bad. If one has scruples, yea, the seventies were bad. But at least they brought us Gene Watson and Eddie Rabbitt and the Oaks.
I'll settle for that.
Sunday, September 1, 2019
I know that country music was invented in 1857...or whatever...but for me, country music began in the early nineteen sixties. My parents owned two, count 'em, two record albums, and we didn't even possess a stereo.
The early-to-mid sixties were a schizophrenic time in music. Radio didn't recognize a thing called "genre", so The Beach Boys competed with Hank Snow, who competed with Frank Sinatra, for air time on our local AM station. And no one gave it a second thought. It was music. And music was wondrous.
I don't think it was until I received a box record player for Christmas when I was five or six that those two precious LP's got their due. Before that, Mom and Dad heard songs on the jukebox at the local Eagles Club on Saturday nights. But, boy, Mom loved Ray Price. Dad was more like me ~ he liked honky tonkin' music; a song with a good shuffle beat. Even though Dad couldn't maneuver a two-step if his life depended on it.
Now 60-some-odd years later, these two albums hold a cherished place in my music collection. Were they that good? The simple answer is yes. The not-so-simple answer is, sure, I miss Dad and Mom and I thank God they introduced me to musical eclecticism.
Ken Burns probably won't mention Ray Price. That's a travesty. Ray Price scorched country music like a thunderbolt. It wasn't "For The Good Times" that did it. It was "Heartaches By The Number" and "Invitation To The Blues".
And "Soft Rain".
When I learned that Dad has passed away, I sat in my rocker and played this song over and over again, and shed copious tears as I crooned along.
Buck Owens was different ~ truly. He didn't ascribe to Chet Atkins' "Nashville Sound". Buck went his own way. Buck wasn't a Tennessean; he was a Californian. Things got done differently on the west coast. Buck had drums, and a bass, and steel guitar; and no Anita Kerr Singers. He had a Telecaster. He had Don Rich.
If country music could be "rockin'", here it is, country-style:
Country in the early sixties didn't hold a place in my heart, except for these two seminal albums. Sure, Roger Miller was all over the TV. Television producers looked upon him as a novelty. George Jones was huge on WSM, but his songs were a tad maudlin. Patsy was passe. Jimmy Dean talked his way through tall tales. Cash was thump thump thumping out songs.
Put your money on Ray Price and Buck Owens.
Mom and Dad knew exactly how to maximize four hard-earned dollars.
Friday, August 23, 2019
At long last, someone in the mainstream is going to give country music some love. Back in 1968 I never would have thought it possible. Ken Burns will be debuting his ten-part series, "Country Music", on September 15. I'm giddy!
Here's a preview:
When I first learned that Ken Burns, the esteemed documentarian, was going to tackle country music, I felt anxious. What does Ken know about country music? Sure, I loved the Civil War series, and it introduced me to an instrumental that for a time became an earworm. But country music? You can't understand country as an outsider. Then I watched the one-hour preview, my stomach churning. He might just do it!
Here's what I learned from the official preview:
- Yep, they talk to Marty Stuart, the true country historian.
- There's Rodney Crowell (surprise!)
- Dwight Yoakam will chronicle the Bakersfield Sound ~ who better?
- The series will lean heavily on Johnny Cash, the one country artist people who don't like country music worship.
- Dolly Parton is prominent. (Hit-wise, Tammy Wynette would be a more appropriate choice.)
- The series is going to be politically correct, for a genre that never indulged in that.
- The tale ends with 1996. (Kudos, Ken! We won't be subjected to any of that "new country" pap.)
In the trailer, Ken said something like, "People might be disappointed that their favorite artist isn't featured." No, I'm not that naive. I do hope, however, for historical precision, that artists who were influential in their era will be given their due.
The PBS site for this extravaganza invites fans to become involved. "Share Your Story" poses some basic questions. You could be featured on the page! If you love country, now is your chance.
In honor of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration, I will be devoting the month of September to country music. Watch the series along with me, won't you? And you can bet I'll provide my own commentary. I have pretty rigid standards and I'm a tough critic when it comes to country music.
Before I go set my DVR, let's get this party started: