This is the question I found myself asking after the passing of Merle Haggard earlier this year. With the man who wrote “Mama Tried” and “Swinging Doors” gone, who’s left to write real songs about hard drinkin’, dusty cowpokes, and the pervasive urge to ramble?
I know there’s technically a genre named “country” out there, and there are “country stars”, “country radio stations”, and even “country music award shows” on the TV. What I’m taking about is genuine, 100% cracked saddle leather, cheap whiskey, dusty highway, high lonesome country music. Songs about gambling and shambling down to the saloon for a shot of rot gut, to gain enough courage to talk to a heartless woman who will make you kill her husband, then leave you to hang for it. You know the good old, feel-good songs of the west.
Nowadays, what passes at country (cue the old man shaking his cane) is just mediocre pop in cowboy boots. Add a pedal steel guitar and a lyric about a pick-up truck and you have yourself a bonafide chart topper. Contemporary country doesn’t take risks anymore, that’s what it comes down to. You could play the edgiest song out there for your parents, your Rabbi, or your Mormon cousin and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash.
Back In 1952 Hank Williams was banned for life from the Grand Ole Opry for being drunk on stage, (the gig every country star needed to be a success). He was so drunk, he is still banned to this day even though he’s been dead for 60 years.In 1967, Johnny Cash sang the line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” at a concert inside of Folsom Prison for a room full of screaming inmates. That’s some gangsta shit right there. I guarantee you Blake Shelton has never even been to Reno. We are blessed to still have a few long-tall heroes left, slinging out some genuine twang, but they are on the geriatric side of the meadow. That’s why it’s important to appreciate them now before they mosey on up to that sweet by and by.
Kris Kristofferson is still kicking and he recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a stripped down two disk retrospective called The Cedar Creek Sessions. A scaled down record recorded live over three days. It’s reminiscent of the sparse production Rick Rubin worked on those final Johnny Cash masterpieces or the live room sound of John Mellencamp’s 2010 record No Better Than This, produced by the mighty T-Bone Burnett. Here’s a duet with the massively overrated Sheryl Crow performing “The Loving Gift” from The Cedar Creek Sessions. It’s a testament to Kristofferson’s songwriting that he can even make a hack like Sheryl Crow sound good.
Also this year, the mighty Loretta Lynn dropped some heavy duty reflection on us with the release of Full Circle, a long overdue follow-up to her 2004 comeback collaboration Van Lear Rose. Here she is performing her smokin’ duet with Jack White about the perils of “Portland” Oregon.
Then of course there’s the the reefer smoking, double braided, original Texas outlaw, Mr. Willie Nelson. The man just released his 70th studio album and it’s a country take on Gershwin of all things. The dude is a national treasure. Here’s the spooky country version of “Summertime” you never knew you needed.
Beyond those legends (and of course, Dolly Parton, may her implants live forever) there’s little hope, in the mainstream anyway, for us twang enthusiasts. Fortunately there are a great many hot local bands keeping it gritty in the smaller stages and honky-tonks of this great nation, and thanks to the internet they are but a click away. The Pine Box Boys, Three Times Bad, The Gravel Spreaders, and Red Meat out of the Bay Area are but a few examples from my neck of the woods. But, I guarantee you, every town in America has some guy or gal in dusty boots working hard to keep country music dangerous, you just have to look past the DJ nights and the Karaoke happy hours. As a wise man once said to me over some cold Lone Star in Depp Ellum, Texas: “When punk rockers grow up, they play country music.” I hope that’s true, for Willie’s sake. We can’t expect him to carry the weight forever…he’s got a hell of a lot of weed to smoke.
Let’s end with a final word from Willie and Loretta from Lynn’s latest release Full Circle. The haunting and profound “Lay Me Down”. Let’s hope they don’t lay down just yet: