Ghost Wiring

Your ghost is a light show at night...The river is watching you, at the drive in tonight...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Countrier Than Thou

Recently, at ViaChicago, there was a discussion of 'fake country voices'. Someone said that Ryan Adams was great because he sang country music without a 'fake country voice'. (This argument was countered with the notion that, yeah, but he tries to sound like everyone else so it's just as bad.) There was also a bit of an argument between my father and a friend of ours about Gillian Welch (not at VC.) They discussed that Gillian was born Manhattan and grew up in LA. She attended Berklee School of Music where she met David Rawlings. They hooked up and started making bluegrass music. But this is where they disagreed: My dad said that he wishes to create the illusion that she is a coal miner's daughter, and she does a damn good job with it. Our friend didn't really agree that it was an image. Her music is dark and haunting but beautiful, and most of it sounds like it could have been recorded at the turn of the century. But, even though she is so good at portraying this image, it must be remembered that it is just that, an image.

Image is a really important part of music. But, it seems to me, that people don't realize that most of the time, it's just an image that they see on stage. A musician cannot be defined merely by the way they are on stage. They are performers, just like dancers and actors. But back to the original topic...Country music has one of the biggest image problems of all genres of music. It's always been one of the purest forms of musical expression, but these days it's hard to figure out what is real and true and what is just a performance.

Country music started as what is referred to in my house as 'whiny mountain music'. It was folk music from the Appalacian Mountains. The Carter Family, Bob Wills, and other groups from the early 20th century are common knowledge to moderate country fans, since nearly every country artist will cite them as a source of inspiration. The songs dealt with religion and god, heaven & death, and the good and hard times in life. There was a certain purity to this primative form of the current popular music. There was a truth to the simplistic lyrics and chord progressions.

These days, it is a widely commercial genre. Country music, now meant to seem glitzy and glamorous, (but really ends up seeming cheesy) with rhinestones and fringe being an important part of the look. The songs are directed towards the general public rather than for their own personal, spiritual, and emotional expression.

But I digress...what was I talking about? Oh, right 'fake, country' voices. Well, we know they plague commercial country music (Tobey Keith, Garth Brooks, etc.), so we don't even need to talk about that. But what about the indie country crooner? Let's talk about Ryan Adams again for a minute...and his arch nemesis - Robbie Fulks. Can we argue who is the greater artist based on their songs or by their image? Ryan Adams write songs that are deeply emotional and dark. They are folky and sensitive and well orchestrated. Robbie Fulks writes clever little country numbers that spark with irony and humor. Ryan Adams uses his sincere singer/songwriter voice filled with anguish and deep emotional scar tissue. Robbie Fulks uses a fake country voice. I'll let you pick which one is more 'true' to himself and his art. It seems to me that a singer should use whatever voice seems appropriate for the song, what seems true to her or himself. I've always found Robbie Fulks's style to be purely tounge-in-cheek, whereas Ryan Adams's seems a bit pretentious to me. This is, of course, not to say that I don't enjoy their music equally.

If the music that comes to the musician doesn't match their appearence or character, this should be praised. Rather than going for the obvious, they have been able to reach down deep inside themselves and find something that feels right to them. One of my favorite examples of this is the Waco Brothers, a band started by Jon "Jonboy" Langford of the Mekons and Dean "Deano" Schlabowske of Wreck. Most of the band is from the UK, but they all congregated in Chicago to play none other than Alt. Country (Insurgent Country, if you're going to be particular about it.) It's an odd combination, definitely, but it seems to fit them so naturally that you don't even notice.

So, my dear readers, I am going to leave you with a couple songs.
"The Death Of Country Music" by the Waco Brothers &
"Countrier Than Thou" by Robbie Fulks. Enjoy, and be discerning, not judgemental in your musical taste.