(On an unrelated note, my current must-hear song is Up to the Roof by Blue Man Group & Tracy Bonham. The verses are driven by the same staccato percussion tubes that you see in the Blue Men’s Pentium ads, making the loud guitars in the chorus that much more powerful. Bonham sells the drama perfectly, sounding like she’s yearning to escape and has just stumbled upon the way to do it. Great stuff.)
So we’ve finished off the decades, and now we’re hitting the umpteen XM channels in which they subdivide genres like a bunch of dieters sharing one slice of pie. The four or five alt-rock channels (depending on your definition) will wait for a few weeks. Today, with some trepidation, we hit the country channels.
“We’ve dimmed the lights, thrown some sawdust on the floor, and brought the honky tonk back to life,” says the XM description of Channel 10, America. I don’t even like the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, so this could be a rough ride. But I’ll keep an open mind …
George Jones, Small Y’All: Kind of a country version of Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover … “Don’t it make you feel like a jerk, Kirk.” Your basic three chords-plus-bridge on a thick-toned electric guitar with a piano reinforcing the beat, a fiddle playing the occasional fill and a slide guitar generally irritating everyone.
Paul Overstreet, Daddy’s Come Around: Did I change stations? The bass is actually funky, and I heard some ’80s synthesizer sounds. OK, there’s the slide guitar, and the lyrics are typical country — matter-of-fact storytelling with the occasional bit of cleverness (“more than the locks have changed …”), all about a woman telling a man to straighten up and fly right. Not bad. Kind of fun, actually.
Terri Gibbs, Somebody’s Knockin’: I swear I’ve heard this song. Minor key, bit of a blues feel, some gospel-styled background vocals and piano riffs. AllMusic.com confirms that this was a crossover hit in ’81 and says Gibbs, a blind woman from Miami, returned to gospel music soon after. This isn’t a bad song, but I feel like I’m cheating. Isn’t this supposed to be traditional country, not country-tinged adult contemporary?
Waylon Jennings, Drinkin’ & Dreamin’: He actually says “drink ‘TIL I’m dreaming” in the chorus, and that gives you some idea of where he’s going with this. Sounds like a Jimmy Buffett setting, which isn’t a compliment. And it’s even less successful for Waylon than it is for Buffett. I think I could listen to Waylon in an actual honky-tonk setting.
Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line: A classic. Very simple setting — a guitar picking out single notes over a scratching sound. (Probably a washboard, not a hip-hop DJ.)
Hank Williams Jr., Ain’t Misbehavin’: Coincidentally, the Monday Night Football pregame just ended. This is definitely cheating — it’s a show tune, for crying out loud! Fats Waller piano tune with lyrics written in 1929. Hank does a nice job with it, but geez, this is country? That’s like filing Wynton Marsalis’ classical trumpet work under “jazz” because his last name is “Marsalis.”
Joe Stampley, Everyday I Have to Cry: Here’s a philosophical question. Do you have to sound like your liver is begging you to put down the bottle to be an authentic honky-tonk singer? This guy doesn’t pull it off. He’s about as believable as Tori Amos rapping. (I’m assuming — Tori hasn’t tried that to my knowledge, and I shouldn’t give her any ideas.)
Mandy Barnett, Three Days: I’m picturing an American Idol audition in which Simon struggles to say anything. The song itself — with random key changes apparently thrown around in a desperate attempt to stir up something interesting — is insipid; the singing is worse. I was actually relieved to hear the slide guitar solo.
Charlie Daniels, Uneasy Rider: “With Hank Jr. blaring on the radio,” the one-time controversial commencement speaker at UNC Wilmington tells a tale of driving around for no apparent reason. Then he ends up in a bar that sounds like a punk bar first but apparently is a gay bar. (How many gay bars have punk bands and guys who look like rejects from the Sex Pistols. Gay guys have fashion sense, dumbass.) So, of course, a guy puts his hand on Daniels’ knee and touches off a brawl. You know, Charlie, I’m not gay, but I think the words “Don’t flatter yourself” are appropriate here.
(At this point, I’d like to plug the Marshall Tucker Band’s Fire on the Mountain, which happened to pop up on iTunes while I was finishing up this post. Maybe it’s not traditional country, but it’s a damn good song, and I needed a reminder that there’s better music in this genre, broadly defined.)
Johnny Lee, Cherokee Fiddle: Why is a song called Cherokee Fiddle dominated by an overbearing slide guitar? It hardly matters — this song is every country cliche thrown into one song. Never have so many references to whiskey sounded so gratuitous. Lee, incidentally, was once married to Dallas star Charlene Tilton. Coincidentally, I saw Tilton last week on my weekly Match Game viewing, enduring the paw-happy flirting that would be inappropriate today.
Highway 101, (Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes: Gotta love a country band with a guitarist named … wait for it … Jack Daniels. Seriously. And it’s a serious improvement over the last four songs. They rock a bit, the guitars trade sharp solo lines, and the singer ain’t bad.
Willie Nelson & Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time: Something wrong with the production in the duet parts — it sounds like Willie’s only singing every other note. Maybe he was a little out of it, but he sounded fine in the verse. The lyrics sound like they were written 100 years ago, but it’s a good performance. The steel guitar player knows his place (that is, in the background), and the fiddle solos aren’t bad.
John Conlee, Years After You: Another genre-buster. This could have passed for a John Waite song until the guy started singing. Waite, frankly, would have done a better job with it. It’s a better song than Missing You, but it’s a vocal style mismatch akin to having Kanye West sing Throwing Muses.
Gary Stewart, Your Place Or Mine: Iyyyy thinnnnnkk hhhheeee’ssss ooovvvverrrdoinnnnng thhhhhe vvvvvvvvvibbbraaaatttttoooo …
Merle Haggard, Someday When Things Are Good: A slow, sad one in a major key that lends a bit of dignity to Haggard’s tale of woe. Nice bit of melancholy.
Mickey Gilley, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me: The guest star of many a late ’70s/early ’80s TV show (Fantasy Island twice — once as himself, once not!) has a nice voice, but I think this song was written as an artificial intelligence experiment by a mainframe computer in the ’70s.
Tanya Tucker, The Man That Turned My Mama On: Speaking of the ’70s, this is straight out of the crossover era — big tom-tom fills, bit of a swaggering attitude that would have fit on BJ and the Bear or some other show involving truckers with a heart of gold, fists of fury and perfect hair. I tease, but this isn’t bad.
Dick Curless, Rattlesnakin’ Lady: The guitar plays a standard boogie-woogie piano riff, which is a cheesy effect in itself. The soloing is pretty good. The song is not.
Gatlin Brothers, Sure Feels Like Love: Has it been an hour? I’ll hang in for one more.
Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn, Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man: Yeah, this isn’t so much “traditional country” as it is “country music as played on ’70s variety shows in which the singers acted out the song because it’s just so cute.” Bouncy bass, silly lyrics, all the usual stuff.
Dolly Parton, You’re the Only One: Guitar sounds a lot like George Harrison. I’d listen to Dolly singing Beatles tunes. Early Beatles would work best — I can’t see her getting into Mean Mr. Mustard or Revolution. The spoken section kills this song, which is a real shame.
Ronnie Milsap, I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World: A solid crossover song, with a solid country beat supporting a dreamy mix of guitar arpeggios, harmonica and spacey keyboards. No complaints with the lyrics or vocals. (FWIW, this is the second blind musician of the hour — that I know of.) We’ll wrap it here.
So this wasn’t so bad. I heard a couple of classics and a lot of songs that put me right back in my parents’ living room watching a bunch of bell-bottomed folks on TV. All I needed was someone responding with “I’m a little bit rock and roll.” Which I am.