Friday, July 30, 2004


In music goldmine, fans get the shaft. By chief music writer for the Oz Iain Shedden. The Polly Coufos piece he mentions can be found here .

First, it's great to see the topic closest to the Mule's heart being discussed in our national rag. I don't have much to say about Coufos', except that I agree with every word.

It's hard to put a finger on why people are so resistant to the obvious and plaintive charms of the form. There are many genres of music with little appeal to mainstream audiences. You don't get ridiculed for confessing a passion for opera or folk or jazz or blues, but come out and say you like country music - and we're not only talking about the rock-critic-ratified Gram Parsons axis here - and pity or derision are the usual responses. Sometimes it's outright aggression. From all corners there's an immediate impulse to deduct IQ points.

It's true. People laugh, but I like country music for the same reason I like opera. I am a narrative junkie. Classical music I can appreciate, but opera I love and opera is classical music with a story. (OK, I know instrumental music can tell a story, but you know what I mean.) And the stories trotted out in opera are no less corny than in any twang-soaked tears-in-my-beers number. I don't want to push the comparison too far and I'll stop before I get into trouble. The difference in public perception of blues (the music of poor, rural blacks) and country (the music of poor, rural whites) is also a fascinating topic, one for another day. I try to be out and proud about my passion, but I still find myself holding my tongue sometimes. Or using weasel-y euphemisms like "roots music" or "americana." Steve Earle might be best described as roots these days, but George Jones, he's country.

Shedden is a bit sniffier about it:

Sadly - and what Coufos failed to point out - is that they and the few others like them represent a minuscule percentage of the music that is churned out under the country music banner every year. For every Kasey or Lucinda there are a thousand Clints, Garths and Tammys whose originality stretches only as far as the monogrammed buttons on their ironed Levis.

1: So what? Is this not true of every genre of popular music? Jazz isn't all Bird and Miles and for every smart pop artist like Stew or Ron Sexsmith or Stephen Merritt there's a million Milli Vannilis and Aquas. Why is it only country fans who have to apologise for the dreck taking up space on the Top 40 chart?

2: What's his beef with Tammy? Later he (rightly, of course) calls George Jones "a great of the genre," Tammy belongs in that pantheon too.  If you don't think ol' Possum recorded more than his fair share of cheese, you ain't been listening.

Women do it, too. Terri Clark, Reba McEntire, LeAnn Rymes [sic] and new kid on the block Gretchen Wilson, who has just visited Australia to promote her debut album, are among the big names. Also in the female ranks are the so-called crossover artists, people such as Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, whose good looks and production values have eased them into the pop market.

My advice about all of these mainstream acts - avoid. Better to acquaint yourself with the roots of the music or its modern alternatives than to settle for the bland and boring.

Don't listen to bad music, listen to good music! OK, great advice. But again I have to defend the Dixie Chicks. They certainly don't belong in the company of Faith and Shania. Sure, they lean to the highly marketable end of the spectrum and mightn't write alot of their own songs but they have a good eye for a great cover, play their own instruments -- fiddle! banjo! -- and are definately traditionalists, as the lyrics to Long Time Gone (written by  Guy Clark sideman and great singer/songwriter in his own right Darrell Scott) show:

Now me and Delia singin' every Sunday
Watchin' the children and the garden grow
We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin'
But the music ain't got no soul

Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard
They got money but they don't have Cash
They got junior but they don't have Hank

A few lines which I think sum up Shedden's point perfectly. Oh, and remember that Toby Keith/FUTK/ashamed-George-Bush-is-from-Texas/cheese-eating traitors thing?   The Chicks might not be entirely your mileage, but they hardly belong in the Nashville cookie-cutter-factory box.

Also I think we can over-romanticise the past as an untouched epoch of pure artistic expression unsullied by the pursuit of filthy lucre. When publishers and studio realised hillbilly music would sell, they recorded it. Hank Williams may sing from the soul and listening to him can be "an uplifting, even life-changing experience," he was also a huge money spinner.  And a nitpick about Shedden's timeline,

In hindsight, it's ironic that Williams, considered the king of country for the past 50 years, initially had trouble getting himself heard in Nashville, not least because of his drinking habits.

I think it's truer to say that Hank rose quickly to star status, and it was only then the Nashville tide started to turn against him.

Shedden needs to reconsider a few of his assumptions, but again, isn't it great to see these articles in the national press?

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