Okay, so if you’re anything like me, when you hear the words country music, your stomach tightens up and you reflexively control a gag. Not because you hate country music, far from it, you’re just pretty damn sure what they play on so-called country radio and what seems to be coming out of Nashville these days is about as far from country music as, say, Hank Williams, Sr. is to heavy metal.
Yes, I invoked the hillbilly troubadour. He, along with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, The Carter Family and all the outlaws, hillbillies and what-not are real country music. If all you did was listen to the radio, you’d have no idea that there are bands out there today who carry on the legacy – I’m going to give you a primer on where you should start to build your anti-Nashville collection.
Leave it to a progeny of the Williams line to once again carry the torch leading country music to a different way. Williams, Sr. infused deep-southern blues into his playing, radical at the time, bringing the music of the southern delta to a whole new audience. In that same line stands Shelton “Hank” Williams, III.
III is the undisputed king of the movement away from Nashville with his now near legendary fight with monolithic Nashville label – Curb Records. I won’t go into the details of all that, as it’s as much fiction as it is fact in its retelling these days. Suffice to say the label and the artist didn’t see things eye to eye.
See, III also thought the country music out there was a “buncha fuckin shit to me!” III wanted to do things his way, the way it was done in the past, honest music for honest people. So far, it’s worked with three successful releases under his belt. Start out with III’s second release, Lovesick, Broke and Driftin. It’s closer to what III has said he wanted to do but still has the touch of “Nashville” on it. This will get you good and prepared for what is III’s strongest release to-date – Straight to Hell.
Straight to Hell is the album III wanted to release, it was done his way, with his players, at his studio. Hell, Curb records even made a new “label” (Bruc) to release Straight to Hell. Then pick up Risin Outlaw, the first official release. Risin Outlaw is definitely a good album but it’s easy to see that III was still abit innocent to the dark forces of Nashvilles and didn’t have anywhere near the clout in the industry he does today. If for no other reason, Risin Outlaw is worth the cost for the last track on the album, “Blue Devil.” If you like Hank Williams, Sr. “Blue Devil” will give you chills.
Next up is Wayne Hancock, the man Hank Williams, III has said sounds more like his granddaddy then anyone he’s ever heard.
When Hancock released Thunderstoms and Neon Signs back in 1995, I think just about everyone who heard it thought to themselves “Who the hell is this?” Seriously, both stylistically and vocally, Hancock sounded like someone who shared the stage with Williams, Sr. “There’s some big black clouds rollin in from the west/I’ve been driving all day, lord I sure could use a rest./There’s a motel up-a-head where I can unwind/Cause I sure love them Thunderstorms and neon signs.” Long gone, by this time, was the standard 1-4-5 chord progressions in modern country music but here it was in Hancock’s music – all over the place. If you had grown up listening to old country music, you immediately recognized what Hancock was doing and it felt as right as a summer rain. “Thunderstorm and Neon Signs,” the song, follows the very easy E-A-B7 chord structure and progression, so typical in country music.
Hankcock still tours religiously, having just released Tulsa this past year. Through the years, Hancock has remained true to his roots, never giving in to the machine that is Nashville. Any of Hancock’s albums are a sure-fire winner, but for me, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, That’s What Daddy Wants, and Wild, Free and Reckless are his best. I mentioned Tulsa earlier, great album that sees Hancock trying on a Bob Wills country swing, more so then in his other works. Solid album but go for the ones I mentioned first.
Dale Watson is so sickened by the state of country music today, he’s gone so far as to say he no longer calls his music country, coming up with the moniker of Ameripolitan. "It would be more accurate to leave country out of it," Watson said in the The Exponent, Purdue University's campus newspaper. "They own it now, and you can't change it. They've stolen country. To me, it automatically means crap." Well Watson can call his style whatever he wants, to those of us who know any better, it's country – real county.
Watson’s been at the gig as long as Hancock, releasing Cheatin’ Heart Attack in 1995. Watson’s blood runs Texas Lone Star blue – born in Alabama but moving to Texas at a young age. His music is a direct descendant of that lineage. Think Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and other artist who left Nashville in the early/mid-1970s and invented the “Texas Sound.”
This all seems like it’s coming full circle doesn’t it? Start with 1998s The Truckin Sessions and from there grab up Dreamland. Watson has a new release set for April of this year full of songs he recorded while spending some time at the cabin that once belonged to Johnny Cash, I can’t wait for that one to come out.
Real country music's always been about the hard life – your women left you, you drank too much and it’s time to catch that rolling freight train and get the hell out of dodge for awhile. Now I ask you, what the hell does Toby Keith know about any of that? Hard to talk it, when you’ve never walked it. J.B. Beverley has walked it and his songs do the talking.
Full disclosure here, I’m one-third owner of the record label that put out Beverley’s latest release, so I am, of course, biased. I’ll put it like this, if I didn’t think Beverley is the real deal, I’d have never agreed to release his first album.
If I were to try and draw a parallel between artists of yesterday and artists of today, I would say Beverley is closet in ilk to Jimmie Rodgers. Beverley spent time hopping trains and viewing the American landscape from the open door of a boxcar. His music is the music of real people, of real living and real heartache and pain. To hell with this crap of “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses” saddle up to “Drinkin Bourbon.” If you can find a copy of American Highball, get it, as it showcases Beverley and his band, The Wayward Drifters, at their best – live. In lieu of that, grab a copy of Dark Bar and A Jukebox. In addition to the Nashville barn-burning title track, the album is from start to finish what real country music is all about.
I’m very happy to say that it’s not only the men-folk out there making damn good country music. No conversation about the subject would be complete without mentioning Neko Case. Siren – it’s the best word I’ve heard used to describe Neko Case. To see her, is to disbelieve your own eyes. Not for a minute would you believe that such a powerful voice is coming from such a tiny package (I’m going to guess, but I wouldn’t put Case at much over 5’).
Case gives Patsy Cline a run for her money. No, actually I think Case beats Cline in power and diversity. Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted are my two favorite Case’s albums. Many people have put Case’s most recent release, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood as one of the top releases of 2006. Not that I disagree with them but I’m of the opinion that most of the critics who did so, have only recently discovered Case and were, rightfully, blown away.
So there you go, a damn good start down the path of “real” country music. From these seeds, your eyes will open to an entirely new underground scene of music that’s out there. Our music – the American artform that, like so many other things, has been hijacked by the corporate powers that be in the name of a dollar. It’s time we took it back and it all starts right here.