Jul 27 2012

Why Do People Hate Country Music?


I’ve heard people say, “I like all kinds of music, with the exception of country.” Or, “I’d work in any style with the exception of country music”. Or, “There is great music in every musical genre with the exception of country music.”

Many people think that country music is the music of hayseeds, simple minded folk, right-wingers! My brother-in-law had a saying, (not sure if it was his saying or if he heard it somewhere but I heard it from him), that country music was, ‘music by losers, for losers, about losers.’ Funny for sure but pretty insulting, which of course is part of the humor.

An acquaintance of mine once said, “as soon as I hear a steel guitar, I tune out.” Which is to say that it is the sound of country instruments that turns him off. That’s understandable, I suppose. For me, that’s a big reason why I like country. I love the sound of a steel guitar or a beautifully bowed fiddle or the clear, ringing tone of a Telecaster. Sound is certainly a factor for people in determining the music they enjoy. Some people don’t like the aggressive sound of metal or Tom Waits voice or Steve Perry’s voice or a Celtic-style fiddle. As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog, music is largely sensual and some gals you find pretty and others you don’t.

But that argument might be too simplistic. Why don’t you like those sounds? A singers voice is one thing. My thought is, there are ideas about singing that are, for lack of a better word, generic. Which is to say, there is a sound of singing that most people can relate to and it is the natural sound of the majority of the singers of that culture. So, in Western culture, someone like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan or Tom Araya or others who have idiosyncratic vocal styles might find a chunk of the population can’t relate to them.

But an instrument in and of itself shouldn’t necessarily have a sound that provokes a negative reaction. It could be that the instrument represents something that the listener has already decided against. It may be that a steel guitar represents country music and that’s something a person already dislikes. That’s listening to music with prejudice, something else I’ve talked about.

There are people who dislike country music even though they haven’t really heard much of it. They couldn’t name you five country songs. They think they know how country music ‘goes’ based on hearing a a handful of snippets of country songs at various times in their lives. This is prejudice, pure and simple.¬†Other people’s exposure to country music comes from television channels like CMT. That station plays almost exclusively something people call ‘New Country’, which isn’t particularly new as an idea or country as music. Or as Linda Richman would say, New Country is neither new or country-discuss.”

Contemporary country, which I believe is a more appropriate term, is largely pop music with country affectations. Those would be country instruments like steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, clean, Fender guitars and vocals with a distinctive ‘twang’. It also has, for the most part, very narrowly focused lyrical perimeters. There are only certain things that one sings about in country music and there are several words that give away a song as country. (Pretty much every song ever recorded by Brooks and Dunn has the words honky tonk in it). Without those very important country ‘ingredients’, these songs would sound much like’80’s or ’90’s pop songs. Since most mainstream radio is dance and hip hop influenced, people who like songs might be forgiven for turning the dial to country stations to hear one.

But this country pop hybrid is nothing new. In fact, it is what built Nashville. Producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins had the idea in the 1950’s that if country music was ever to appeal to the masses and make some real money, it had to progress from hillbilly music like you’d hear from Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb to something that resembled the music one heard on mainstream radio. So Owen began recording lush productions for Patsy Cline, among many others and turned singers like Jim Reeves into crooners. This took country music out of the rural areas and into the suburbs and created a massive industry that still thrives in Tennessee.

I grew up hating country music. Partly because I was raised in Western Canada and I associated it with guys in shit kickers who would use them on wimpy kids like me. I also thought it was dumb, largely out of ignorance. And my Dad played country and he had dumped my family back when I was 7 years old to run off with an aspiring country singer. Neither of them ‘made it’, which is only a minor consolation to me.

Unlike some who came to country and western via country rock or alt country, I very suddenly began to appreciate traditional country after traveling to Nashville, where I listened to bar bands cranking out standards. I started to realize how important the song was in country, far more important than in most of the music I was listening to. And how great the musicianship was, again far superior to most musicians in pop and rock music which was beginning to be dominated by producers and technology. And how pretty it all sounded and how much I loved the infectious groove of country swing,

And I realized it’s not stupid. Well some of it is. Really stupid. But then so is most music. In the world of traditional country music, there is an incredible canon of beautifully crafted songs spanning the past 70+ years. For those who say weird things like, ‘I could write a country song”, well yes you could but it probably wouldn’t be very good by country standards. Try writing a country song then attempt to get it placed with a country artist. Then go buy a Lotto 6/49 ticket and tell me which one comes up first.

Good country songs have lyrics that sound like they’ve been labored over for months. Every line seems to be fraught with meaning. When I hear someone like Merle Haggard or George Jones singing, their words ring with authenticity.

I mentioned the musicianship earlier and that is undeniable. Some of the greatest musicians in the world are country musicians. This is a difference between country and other forms of contemporary music. You never hear crap musicians on country records. Some of the new, younger singers may not be as good as the old timers but, as simple as this music is, it takes an incredible amount of talent and feel to execute it properly.

At this juncture, I feel like I should make a point. I often end my blogs without making one. I guess that’s the difference between a blogger and a columnist. A columnist needs to make a point and a blogger just needs a computer and a big mouth. In general, I look at my blog posts more as food for thought than lectures. Perhaps to prove my point I’ll post a song by the great Merle Haggard. This is from a CD released in 2000 on the ANTI label, which many will be more familiar with as a punk label, called If Only I Could Fly. He recorded another CD for ANTI called Roots, which is largely a collection of Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams covers and is one of my 10 favorite albums of all time. Check out this song and I hope it will help you see the validity of country and western music.


Wishing All These Old Things Were New


Jul 8 2012

Why Why Can’t I by Liz Phair is a great production.

When Liz Phair released her self titled fourth CD with production by The Matrix, many jumped off her band wagon. The decision to use The Matrix was something of a catastrophic mistake by her label in terms of keeping Liz a viable artist into the future. For those of you who don’t know, The Matrix were the team that launched Avril Lavigne and several other teen singers into superstardom.

In Liz’s case, it was a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. She had spent many years cultivating a rabid cult following that now felt betrayed by what they saw as a sell out.¬†Most people only heard the single, Why Can’t I, a pop masterpiece that really showcased what The Matrix could do if paired with a legitimate singer/songwriter. This production, in my humble opinion, is a home run and, in a fair and reasonable world, should have catapulted Liz into the stratosphere. Instead, it almost derailed her career. Understandably, I suppose but regrettably i believe.

Many see this as a big production but in actual fact, it’s just using a few elements to their maximum potential. The song begins with a seductive intro which, to these ears sounds like a distorted keyboard playing a pretty melody. Maybe it’s a guitar, who cares! The distortion in this case is not fuzzy like garage rock but instead, fuzzy like a warm, fuzzy teddy bear. The verse is just acoustic guitar, bass and drums and Liz singing a very melodic, uh, melody, with some of The Matrix’s patented radio voice call and answer. After four bars we get a new element which is a very discreet keyboard part. The pre chorus does exactly what a pre chorus is supposed to do, it helps the song climb into the chorus. The hi hat opens up, the vocal melody goes up in range, we get a more intense guitar part and there’s a short stop before we blast into the chorus.

The chorus is the main event. But it’s not like there are a ton of elements. It’s big for a few reasons. One, the vocal melody goes up again and the melody is, as the kids say, epic. The vocal is doubled and there are beautiful harmonies. There are low end-y distorted guitars that are giving the whole thing tons of weight. And that’s pretty much it. That’s how you create a gigantic chorus if you know what you are doing. No horn section or symphony orchestra or bells or whistles. Just meticulous use of what’s at your disposal. We finish by going into a re-intro with the warm fuzzy keys and the radio voice call and answer that was recycled from Hilary Duff’s So Yesterday, also a killer track.

The second verse goes down again in dynamics and we get some creative use of Liz’s vocals-using single tracks, double tracks and harmonies to make each line special.

That same philosophy guides the bridge. The producers use Liz as a call and answer with herself. It starts with an effected Liz paired with and octaved Liz. This is answered by a double Liz, one in each speaker. The last line has a dry Liz joining the effected one, which brings tons of intimacy to that last line, ‘baby I’m dying’.

Next we have a great dynamic shift that sports Liz singing the chorus with just a very nice sounding clean guitar. Clean guitars have not been a highlight of most pop or rock productions since the grunge era. Most clean guitars are just whatever the dudes amp sounds like when he clicks off all his pedals. This one feels like someone actually dialed it up to sound nice coming out of the amp. Then there is the unexpected re entry into the chorus, on the second beat of the bar, which creates lots of excitement and makes the chorus feel even bigger if such a thing is even possible.

This production is great because the producers took the time to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Everything is well thought out and the potential of each element was maximized. Why Can’t I also has a great lyric, a perfect pop melody with lots of sunny harmonies and absolutely amazing sounds. A technical and artistic masterpiece, in my opinion and something that should be listened to without prejudice.