We’re going in a little bit of a different content-direction today… check out Brewster and their playlist highlighting the best of Country!
Country, Dad Rock, and Expansions Thereof
An hour of music in defense of Country, exemplifying how it influenced some of my favorite songwriters and how it morphed into music being written today.
Notoriously defined as "three chords and the truth" by Harlan Howard, I was originally attracted to Country music's compositional simplicity and the bed that laid for a songwriter's lyrical voice to shine through. This came at a time that I was coming to terms with my identity as an American after a period of about 10 months that saw me touring in Africa and in the Midwest and Southern US, during which our current political climate began to take hold. While playing in Ethiopia, I found myself missing things about home that I had been taking for granted, and the US tours had me fall in love with them in a new way. At the same time, spending time in those parts of the country really show you the effects of the persistent, growing wealth division, inequality, and alienation here. There is a deep-rooted sadness in the spirit and history of America, and I began to feel that very much with this music as my backdrop.
Country music is the sound of this American sadness, and along with Blues and Jazz, the whole story is here. Whether it's confessional, wallowing, or supremely goofy and tongue-in-cheek, the music has an unparalleled honesty to me. Unrequited love, loneliness, to be beset in your misfortune; it's all here exposed. Compositionally, I hear this sadness braided inexorably into the music's common harmonics. It weaves an inescapable history through these sounds, and I became fascinated by how musicians experimented in pushing them to new heights without ever losing the thread. This playlist starts with a mix of classic songwriters sewing into this quilt, and moves into music made today by artists that have followed that strand to stitch in their own squares.
Featuring: Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Neil Young Leonard Cohen Townes Van Zandt Bruce Springsteen Jackson C. Frank Arthur Russell Songs: Ohia Wilco Sam Evian Big Thief Loose Fur Vetiver Hiss Golden Messenger Buck Meek Cass McCombs
Bob Dylan - "Wallflower" Just like you I'm wondering what I'm doing here. Just like you I'm wondering what's going on. What more needs to be said than that? A classic from Big Boy Bobby D, his wandering pleading to a partner here feels universal.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner - "The Last Thing On My Mind"
An early favorite country song of mine. The remorseful chorus of I could have loved you better, didn't mean to be unkind is especially relatable to me, and As we walk along my thoughts are tumbling round and round / Underneath our feet a subway's rumbling underground is just such a magnificent painting of a couple walking together in a city, their doubts in each other politely silent.
Neil Young - "The Losing End (When You're On)" Neil Young's unabashed country songwriting that shows up on this record works wonders on me. The swaying rhythm of this song accompanied by the opening lines I went into town to see you yesterday but you were not home / So I talked to some old friends for a while before I wandered off alone, his sigh of and I feel that way again, topped off with his unintelligible yelping before a wonderfully boisterous guitar solo seal the deal for me.
Leonard Cohen - "Fingerprints" - Taken from the notorious Death Of A Ladies' Man record, this song is a fine example of one of the greatest songwriters showcasing an uncharacteristically walloping hoe-down tune scattered with wonderful and goofy lyrics about a loss of identity. This kind of juxtaposition between the dopey and carefree and regretful and mourning is something that I love about Country music. I touched you once too often / Now I don't know who I am / My fingerprints were missing when I wiped away the jam. The jam?? Leonard you are disgusting and I love it.
Townes Van Zandt - "Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel" - Townes Van Zandt's selt-titled record from 1969 is a beautiful example of heartbreaking songwriting, and the only artist I trust to follow Leonard Cohen on a playlist.
Bruce Springsteen - "Open All Night" - I felt like using a Nebraska song on this playlist might be a cheap shot, but I could not resist Bruce's subdued rockings on the Early north Jersey industrial skyline. His belting of This turnpike sure is spooky at night when you're all alone / Gotta hit the gas, baby, I'm running late / New Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape is a sentiment I've held my whole adult life.
Jackson C. Frank - "Blues Run The Game" - If you don't know the story of Jackson C. Frank, and this song speaks to you, I suggest looking him up. A crushingly sad, and terribly American story. Hop Along fans will know it from the song "Horseshoe Crabs." This beautiful string of verses has a set of my favorite lyrics: Send out for whisky, baby / Send out for gin / Me and room service, honey / Me and room service, babe / Me and room service, well, we're living a life of sin
Arthur Russell - "This Time Dad You're Wrong" - Usually known for his wild and meditative cello-lead electro songs, Arthur Russell has a collection of more traditional songwriting that was posthumously released in 2004 on Love Is Overtaking Me. This is a favorite of mine from it. Always tragically ahead of his time, the composition of the guitar in the main lick hints at where some artists would be taking Country and Americana influences decades later.
Songs: Ohia - "Farewell Transmission" - Another magnificent artist haunted by the American Sadness, Jason Molina brings us, objectively with no doubt, one of the greatest songs ever written. Not much has made my skin crawl the way he does when he sings Someone must have set us up / Now they'll be working in the cold grey rock, and nothing epitomizes that feeling quite like the opening riff. This triumphant song buries you in those rocks and then moves one little stone to let in the sliver of light that is I will try and know whatever I try / I will be gone but not forever. This hope is then soiled by a storm that rolls in, raining down the realization of The real truth about it is there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross / I've really known that all along / Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaw / Must be the big star about to fall. The closing lines of this song haunt me in my bed. Enjoy.
Wilco - "Normal American Kids" - Jeff Tweedy is my favorite modern songwriter, and a perfect illustration of everything I've talked about here. Jeff immediately grabbed me with this quiet country waltz ballad and Nels Cline's whispering, meandering leads secured this as an early favorite off Wilco's most recent record. This song in particular exhibits everything that I love about Country songwriting: a typical (and literal) American anguishing of not fitting in. Lightning crazed and cracked like an egg / High behind the garden shed / Painting myself as a normal American kid. Fantastic.
Sam Evian - "Apple"
Sam Evian is a recent favorite of mine, especially with this new record from Saddle Creek, a record label that embodies a lot of what I admire in modern songwriting. This is a really beautiful song from that record, and in his fingerpicking I can smell the spirit of artists like Townes Van Zandt and Jackson C. Frank.
Big Thief - "Haley"
Adrianne Lenker is also one of the best songwriters around right now, and another Saddle Creek favorite. Big Thief show off their American music chops here with a really great example of a current artist experimenting with that and pushing it further.
Loose Fur - "The Ruling Class"
Another Tweedy-penned ditty, this song is a catchy struttin' tune that shows off that juxtaposition in Country music when the goofy and boppin' are adjacent with a heavy American topic. This one features the return of Jesus Christ as a cleverly disguised CEO junky putting tax brackets on all of mankind.
Vetiver - "I Know No Pardon"
Vetiver is a brand new discovery for me, but from what I've heard so far it looks like I've been missing out on an artist that exhibits the progression of American music very nicely. This is a lovely Country-inspired tune I've been listening to lately.
Hiss Golden Messenger - "John The Gun"
This song's start, with what sounds like singer MC Taylor's watch hitting his guitar as he strums, gives way to a supremely groovy rhythm that I did not see coming when I first listened to Hiss Golden Messenger's recent album Hallelujah Anyhow. The record has a lot of great moments where classic-informed musicians bring it their own groove, and I found myself revisiting this record a lot because of it.
Buck Meek - "Ruby"
Another member of Big Thief, Buck Meek just released an LP that feels like an artistic breakthrough to me, given his past solo work. This song's snaky, drunken writing style totally manifests the way Buck plays everything with Big Thief. Throughout the self-titled record, he lets his Texas heritage show, and I spent the summer enjoying how his slippery style crept throughout its Country roots.
Cass McCombs - "There Can Be Only One"
This simple, groovy, windows-down summertime jam is a favorite of mine from Cass McCombs. Big Lou Reed and 70s vibes here to ride us out and take us back home with that country-hinged guitar lick.
Thank you Mark!
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