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.

18 Comments:

  • At 8/30/2005 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I call bullshit!

     
  • At 9/12/2005 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Say what??? Who is that other anonymous??

    Bob Wills, while taking his initial inspiration from the string band music of the 20s (and earlier)and learning fiddle from a long line of players (including ones in his family who brought their music with them to Texas), augmented his music with jazz players and arrangements and helped create one of the first crossover genres, Western Swing.

     
  • At 9/12/2005 2:33 PM, Blogger Cherry Ghost said…

    you're quite right about bob wills. i need to read up on him. i haven't yet done my research, but i love his music.

     
  • At 9/12/2005 3:35 PM, Blogger Me said…

    I love country music...nice post...

     
  • At 9/30/2005 10:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I thought you might be interested to know the the incredibly talented Gillian Welch was not acually born in New York City; she was born elsewhere and adopted by the Welches as a very teeny tiny baby. Yes, her beginning years were in New York and then L.A., etc., but, for all any of us know, she actually may be a coal miner's daughter. I've always felt that her music and her writing come from a very 'primal' place because she is an utterly authentic person, in every way, and everything about her belies her upbringing in those two major city's, except that she was reared in a very loving household that was filled with music and incredible creativity, and the great encouragement of parents who truly wanted their children to live their dreams, whatever they may be. I think one never quite knows exactly what the influences are in shaping ones life. But that Gillian is 'country' in her soul, is undeniable, wherever she spent her formative years. Hope this is of interest to you and the discussion with your father.

     
  • At 10/01/2005 1:07 PM, Blogger Cherry Ghost said…

    that's really interesting...i'd like to learn more about her and her music, actually...i need to continue to collect her albums.

     
  • At 10/01/2005 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm glad you found that interesting. On one of her albums is a song about an orphan, I believe. Have you ever seen her in person? If you do, you will see that she is excatly who she is and it's not any kind of an image; she is who she is, from her head to her toes and as I said before, as authentic as they come, in every way; she is Gillian! They, Gillian & Rawlins are quite extrodinary to experience, live, in a club. There is a synergy to the way they play their instruments together; it's pretty awesome. I will be interested to hear if you do get to see her 'in person', and your faher, too, what you feel.

     
  • At 10/02/2005 12:54 AM, Blogger Cherry Ghost said…

    i'd like to see her in person. you're right that i should get the inside story before i judge. i always try to do that first.

     
  • At 10/02/2005 1:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's Anonymous here again; Perhaps I should distinguish myself from the othe people by adding a number to my name. How about Anonymous1??
    I really do hope you get to see Gillian 'in person', maybe she will be coming to your town. Take a listen to that song I mentioned; I looked at the CD and it's on her first CD I believe called "REVIVAL", and the song title is "Orphan Girl". It's a great CD. Enjoy!

     
  • At 10/02/2005 12:05 PM, Blogger Sarah said…

    yeah, gillian is fantastic live.

     
  • At 10/10/2005 11:05 AM, Blogger OldLady Of The Hills said…

    Hi Rosie,
    Gillian Welch was just here i L.A. playing The Avalon, and I was able to find out that they will be playing Chicago some undetermined-as-yet time, in 2006. I heard she was fantastic at The Avalon and that the show was two and a half hours long because the audience would not let them go!!!
    I really hope you get to see her in 2006!

     
  • At 10/27/2005 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    While I have not seen Gillian in person as yet, I have seen her on ACL or Soundstage or some such show and have two of her albums. I like her and I like her albums well enough. She and David are quite excellent (although one of my friends had some disparaging things to say about David as a result of seeing him in person and how self-important he acts....)

    It isn't hard to like them, they play well, write good songs and did a nice job of backing up Ryan Adams on Heartbreaker (and I really need to get Robyn Hitchcock's Spooked on which they back him up on too). But just for argument's sake, let's get real for a minute. These guys are folks musicians in the same vein as Joan Baez (someone will write in some hate for her, that's why I named her), Judy Collins (all but forgotten) and dozens of others in the last 50 years of the urban folk revival. All are good and all are easy to relate to, but they aren't the Carters, Stonemans or any other true hillbilly artists. Nor are they Blind Willie Johnson (where they got the inspiration for Time the Revelator from his John the Revalator), Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake or Blind Lemon Jefferson.

    Gillian Welsh (the group not the individual) will forever draw inspiration from roots music, but not BE roots music. This is not a denegration of their art, musicianship or talent, it is a straight up fact.

    And this Anonymous has owned Revival since it was released, on the strength of Orphan Girl, which was very nicely covered by Emmylou Harris, who always knows a good song when she hears it and interprets them well and promotes new songwriters. I also own Year Among the Yearlings and have borrowed Time the Revelator and like the title song alot and much of the rest of the album.

    Sadly they don't actually tour all that much in the midwest. The two first albums are there for the ripping incidently....

     
  • At 11/25/2005 2:21 PM, Anonymous Carrie said…

    Why can't Gillian just be playing and writing music that she likes, why does it have to be an image or a yard stick over who is more real or not. God, people can be such music snobs and that so misses the point. So Gillian won't ever be on Smithsonian Recordings, it doesn't mean her music is any less. As Duke Ellington said, It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, and Ms Welch has got that swing, whatever her background. As Jonathan Richman sang, 'Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole' - it's the music that matters, end of story. Otherwise why are we listening?

     
  • At 11/26/2005 4:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Actually it is an image she chose, so maybe that's what is at issue here. She writes very good songs. However all singers have their image, which they mostly craft to engage their audience. That's not a problem that's just the way it is. Duke Ellington had a carefully crafted image as well. (As does Jonathon Richman needless to say...)

    And yes...Gillian Welsh is the name of her group, which includes David. It is the same as PJ Harvey is the name of her group as well.

     
  • At 11/26/2005 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040920fa_fact3
    will get you to the article on Gillian by the way. Really good stuff.

     
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