Now way back in 1966, Bob
Dylan at the suggestion of his producer decided to record
in Nashville. The result of course was Blonde On Blonde,
which actually was a lot closer to what was coming out
of Memphis in the structure of the songs and the sound
than it was to the country and western sounds of Nashville.
That didnt stop lots of musicians and record companies
from also going to Nashville. Vanguard Records for instance
sent almost every artist on the label whether their music
fit or not (it usually didnt) and soon there were
lots of albums with either Nashville or Country in the
Two years later The Byrds
decided to go to Nashville. Now The Byrds had some country
roots. Roger McGuinn played the banjo, bassist Chris Hillman
started out in a bluegrass band, and new member Gram Parsons
who actually started out as one of them folksinger types
but soon switched over to country had a pretty good country-western
band happening, The International Submarine Band.
Now right around the same
time, The Band released Music From Big Pink, and
probably because they looked like 19th Century
Outlaws and their song "The Weight" had that "take a load
off fanny" chorus, and maybe because they covered "Long
Black Veil" and lived in the country, they too were sometimes
In any case this is how
Country Rock was born, and soon all kinds of bands were
either going country or breaking up and going country
and living in the country, and singing songs about pickin
and grinning and living in the country and how cool country
and the country was.
Now, of course this whole
notion of country rock was kind of ridiculous to begin
with because what were Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis,
Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers and of course Elvis
if they werent country rock? But then the people
at record companies didnt think about that cause
its easier to stick a label on something and pretend
Now fast-forward about
20 years and a whole lotta stuff had happened in-between.
Country rock had kind of been forgotten about right quick
though Gram Parsons did emerge as the great eternal country
rock angel martyr, leaving Emmylou Harris to carry the
torch. The record business itself was taken over by accountants
and lawyers who cared less about music, and proceeded
to turn it into the mess it is today. Another thing that
happened was a lot of people woke up and realized that
there already were plenty of country singers and that
Merle Haggard singing Merle Haggard might even be better
than Gram Parsons singing Merle Haggard.
Then country music which
always was prone to following any trend got all mired
up in the Outlaw Movement, which had everyone writing
songs about what outlaws they were and then later, things
really get messed up when John Travolta and Urban Cowboy
came along with all that mechanical bull stuff. In
the mid-80s things got saved briefly by Dwight Yoakam
and Steve Earle. Yoakam pretty much resurrected what country
was supposed to be and Earle kind of picked up where Parsons
left off. His Guitar Town was the perfect merger
of country and rock. But Earle soon decided he wanted
to be Bruce Springsteen or maybe a metal band or maybe
both, and Yoakam kind of got lost inside his cowboy hat.
Into this mess in 1989
came Uncle Tupelo who I guess in the parlance of
the times were an "alternative" band whatever that means.
Actually they were an alternative country band, or so
they would be referred to later. In fact Uncle Tupelo
would become the founders of "Alternative Country," whatever
that means. Uncle Tupelo recorded a couple of albums for
an indie, got signed by a major, recorded a couple of
more albums and broke up. Now as a prelude to reissuing
all their albums is An Anthology 89/93: An Anthology
(Columbia/Legacy). Uncle Tupelo was led by two songwriters,
Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Farrar and Tweedy paid attention
to the music that came beforeall of it: folk music,
country music, rock and roll, punk rock. The album opens
with a straightforward cover of the Carter Familys
"No Depression," except theres something in Farrars
voice that makes you think the depression hes singing
about may not be solely economic. That feeling of depression
or angst comes through often in the songs of both Farrar
and Tweedy (while both are credited on the original songs,
they now admit they actually wrote them separately, so
who is singing lead much like The Beatles is really the
songwriter). Looking back, what they did on one level
is quite interesting: kids who grew up in the Reagan 80s
writing about it and making it sound like country music
of the 30s and 40s, but often using language of the 80s
They often mix it up with
thrash rock and sometimes vice versa. The previously unreleased
cover of Iggy Pops "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is done
in a country style that combines Neil Young, Johnny Cash
and a bunch of other influences.
They veer back and forth
between various styles, often using hard electric guitars
to emphasize an emotion. It doesnt always work and
theres times when you wish theyd stay with
a straight acoustic setting, except its obvious
that theyre having fun rocking outand when
fun comes through on a record, thats an accomplishment.
you can hear them grow as songwriters both lyrically and
melodically. If theres a problem with the songs,
its that at times the lyrics are not quite fulfilled.
At the same time theres a genuine sincerity in the
vocals that overrides lyrical inadequacies.
Uncle Tupelos choice
of covers on this retrospective includes a very good version
of John Fogertys "Effigy" and the traditional folk
song, "Moonshiner," which would be a standout if Bob Dylan
hadnt recorded it. Dylans 1963 recording of
this finally released on The Bootleg Series is
one of his greatest vocal performancesthe one I
use to shut up anyone who says he cant sing, and
while Jay Farrar does a good job, he cant come close.
James Talley had
15 minutes of fame in 1977, when Jimmy Carter said he
was his favorite songwriter and had him play his inauguration,
while everyone else who listened to songwriters said,
"who!?" Talley had recorded a few albums for Capitol and
was a pretty good C&W songwriter, but by the 80s
was selling real estate (quite successfully apparently)
His new Touchstones
(Cimarron Records) are re-recordings of the best of those
songs since Talley has been unable to get Capitol to re-release
them or give him the rights to the albums. Esteemed writer
Peter Guralnicks liner notes would have you believe
that Talley is the second coming of Hank Williams and
Woody Guthrie rolled into one and perhaps better than
both. Taint so. Talleys a good craftsman
and at times a likeable singer.
Recorded in San Antonio,
hes backed by some of the finest session musicians
in Texas, and occasional guests like Joe Ely. The recording
is cleanat times too clean and the playing
though excellent at times is a bit too slick. Tallys
relaxed vocal style works best when things get a bit funky
as on "Bluesman" and especially, "Nothin But The
Blues," but he can also be sappy, on "Sometimes (I Think
About Suzanne) and "Not Even When Its Over."
Like many country singers,
Talley sings about other country singers, in this case
a tribute to one of the original Western Swing bands,
"W. Lee ODaniel And The Light Crust Doughboys."
Its not a bad song and theyve worked up a
good western swing arrangement with Ely dueting on the
vocals highlighted by Bobby Flores fiddle, but Id
rather just listen to the Light Crust Doughboys instead
of hear Talley sing about them.
Talleys skills as
a songwriter are quite clear on the autobiographical "Richland
Washington." With a Guthrie-esque simplicity (in fact
he pays tribute to Guthrie by referencing his songs subtly
in the lyrics) he talks about his father working at the
Hanford (plutonium plant) and ends the song by saying
how his kids have to ask who their grandfather was.
This same eloquent economy
of lyrics is displayed in the closing song, "Give My Love
To Marie," which is about a miner dying of black lung
Too often however, Talley
wraps his lyrics in melodies so laid back, that the anger
that actually is there just doesnt emerge in a way
that grabs you.
Jim Lauderdale first
appeared in 1991 with a strange but interesting release
Planet of Love that was particularly notable for
a great tribute to George Jones, "King of Broken Hearts."
Lauderdale can be a great singerhes worked
in theater in musicals and though hes had tons of
songs recorded by other country artists, he refuses to
stick to any one mold.
Hes defiantly adventurous
as his new The Hummingbirds (Dualtone) proves,
but too often his quirkiness and experimentation come
off as showy more than anything else. You want to like
him, but the feeling that this is country via Broadway
creeps in a little too much. Theres a Nashville
slickness to the playing that robs the music of its heart
and ends up annoying.
The heart that is missing
on The Hummingbirds is there in abundance on Lost
In The Lonesome Pines, (Dualtone) Lauderdales
second collaboration with Ralph Stanley and The Clinch
Mountain Boys. All the songs (except one Bill Monroe
song) were written by Lauderdale (sometimes in collaboration
with other writers). The title track sounds like its
70 years old, in other words a classic.
Ralph Stanley of course
is one of the scariest singers in the universe, and every
time he opens his mouth he gives this disc authenticity.
When he answers Lauderdale on the gospel "Zacchaues,"
he goes right up your spine. The same thing happens on
"She Would Not Tell Her More" which also features standout
mandolin work by John Rigsby, and the true highlight of
the album, "Oh Soul."
There are several bluegrass
gospel numbers, all of them excellent. The closing track,
the a cappella, "Listen To The Shepherd," with Stanley
leading is perfect.
Its easy to understand,
even sympathize with Lauderdales desire to write,
sing and expand the limits of commercial Country &
Western music. But his love of bluegrass and more traditional
honky-tonk is so obvious, and hes so good at it,
that it makes his other work seem frivolous in comparison.