There is no more maligned genre of music than country. Ask people if they hold any sort of fondness for it and you’ll likely see a shudder of revulsion course through their bodies and hear some version of this: “Eurgh, it’s all about pick-up trucks, girls and beer”. It’s hard to believe that an estimated 75 per cent of the population could be wrong, but wrong they most certainly are.
There’s no doubt there’s a good serving of heartache when it comes to country and western, but that is what makes it both compelling and like most other genres of popular music. Add to that a fair dollop of revenge, tales of wrongs done and dues paid, and songs about summer, rain and hard times, and you’re closer to discovering why 30.4 million country albums were sold in the USA in 2014 alone.
My personal journey to becoming a country music super fan – I’ll say it loud, I love banjos and I’m proud – is long and winding. My first exposure to it was when my dad’s Charley Pride and John Denver albums would do their 33 1/3 spin on the player in the living room. There was not a scintilla of appreciation for them. From the age of about eight, my heart belonged to Elvis, and it’s him I have to thank for my love of all things rollicking. He’s the artist most associated with Johnny Cash, who is himself a gateway drug to country music. When I got my hands on a copy of the At Folsom Prison album much, much later it was a revelation. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who isn’t moved by both the singer’s story and his songs is probably dead inside.
Johnny Cash performing live in 1958
When you fall hard for Johnny – and what 20-something can resist a wild man? – it’s a short route to his compadres: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. However, it was an Australian country singer who introduced me to a whole new world. Early in her career I heard Kasey Chambers play Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time to Cry’, a song about the loss of the singer’s father. It is so intensely sad and beautiful I was overwhelmed. (Years later, I had to hold back the sobs when I heard DeMent herself play it at a piano at an intimate performance in Melbourne.)
From that moment on it was singer-songwriters for me. Binging on Gillian Welch, Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams (one magazine calls her “the patron saint of busted love and broken dreams”), Jason Isbell and hundreds of other artists is my jam. It led me to what may be my one and only pilgrimage: to Nashville, Tennessee, home to so many of the greatest country artists, past and present.
She still has it! Dolly Parton on stage at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival
There you can visit the RCA Studio B, where Dolly Parton recorded ‘I Will Always Love You’, see the handwritten eulogy Johnny wrote for June at the Johnny Cash Museum, watch clips of George Jones singing ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ – it’s considered by many to be the saddest song ever recorded – at his eponymous museum, and see Mother Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5 at the Country Music Hall of Fame. And that’s during daylight hours. After dark, you can check out live music at the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Theatre and hundreds of bars and clubs across the city.
There are stories behind country music’s personalities and songs that are both inspiring and overwhelming. These days, I can’t help listen to Charley Pride’s ‘Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’’, not just with an appreciation for the song itself, but also for the man himself who is the first and only African-American to have a slew of number one country hits.
When I hear Jason Isbell’s ‘Cover Me Up’ I want to wrap myself in a blanket and cry. When Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’ fires up I could stomp and clap and sing along because that’s exactly what that song wants you to do. When Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings performed ‘Time (The Revelator)’ last year at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, it was so mesmerising I almost forgot to breath. Perhaps it’s not the same for everyone, but the best of country music touches the soul, with either pure joy or absolute sorrow, and reminds you what it’s like to be alive.
Are you a country music fan? Who is your idol?
(Feature image: Facebook / Johnny Cash)