A version of this ran in the Chicago Reader several years ago. It’s sort of a companion piece to this essay on Merle Haggard, if you’re keeping track….
Born in the Ryman Auditorium
Gretchen Wilson’s chart-topping debut CD “Here for the Party” is one of the most exciting, innovative albums to come out of Nashville in recent memory — which is faint praise indeed. Country music has, sadly, been a stagnant backwater for at least a generation, and Wilson’s efforts to stir things up serve only to distribute the stink. On “Chariot,” for example, Wilson delivers a rap that’s equal parts Blondie and Charlie Daniels. Not a bad idea, and her delivery’s more convincing than Kid Rock’s. But the musical backing is pedestrian blooze riffing, and one can’t help but note that, as one of mainstream country’s first real responses to hip hop, the song is both twenty years too late and kind of half-assed. The rest of the album is even less impressive. Lots of reviewers have praised Wilson for being more rootsy than Shania Twain or Faith Hill. Maybe so, but to me her power-chord bubblegum hooks and cheesy, pseudo-rebellious choruses (“Hell, yeah!”) don’t really recall Loretta Lynn or even Tanya Tucker. Instead, they hark back to the bottom-drawer hair metal that was all over MTV in Wilson’s youth — her hit single, “Redneck Woman,” is almost but not quite as cheeky as Motley Crüe’s “Smokin in the Boy’s Room.”
Much of contemporary country harks back to a simpler, more honest time when classic rock riffs were still rebellious enough for beer commercials, so Wilson’s connection to schlock rock shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Yet, such is Nashville’s insularity that any semi-explicit acknowledgement of the rest of the radio dial, no matter how unthreatening, is considered newsworthy. Thus, in interviews, Wilson can sound eclectic by name-dropping AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd, two decent bands that, thirty years ago, were at the forefront of nothing in particular. Wilson’s also established her bona-fides by associating herself with the Muzik Mafia, a loose affiliation of Nashville artists dedicated (in the words of its de facto leaders Big and Rich) to making country “the most inclusive format of music in America.” That sounds inspirational; maybe, with Wilson’s help they’ll drag CMT out of the past and into the brave, new future of 1982.
Country’s been retro so long that it almost seems churlish to expect musical innovation from the genre. Rap, rock, and even pop may be interested in hunting out the cool new sounds, but country doesn’t even pretend. Yet, it wasn’t always that way. When it first began to coalesce in the 1920s, country was every bit as diverse as its chief rivals, blues, jazz, and pop. Jimmie Rodgers, often referred to as the Father of Country Music, may have been the single most omnivorous performer of his day. During one remarkable stretch in 1930-31, Rodgers recorded several sides with Hawaiian guitarist Lani McIntire, several more with a Hispanic band from San Antonio featuring Charles Kama’s steel guitar, a couple with hillbilly traditionalists the Carter Family, one with St. Louis bluesman Clifford Gibson, and one with trumpet giant Louis Armstrong. Nor was Rodgers’ broad church approach limited to one period of his career. He recorded with jazz backing regularly, if not frequently, and the blues were always a foundation of his performance style. Indeed, Rodgers is as much a part of blues tradition as he is of country; many important artists, from Furry Lewis to Howling Wolf, have either covered his songs or cited him as an influence.
Rodgers’ approach seems bizarre now, but it wasn’t unusual for country music of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and even ‘50s. Certainly, some stars like Roy Acuff or Kitty Wells played up their traditional ties to a hillbilly past. But many others listened to, and were inspired by, the musical styles of their own day. Bill Monroe, for example, created bluegrass by wedding a hillbilly repertoire and instrumentation to the soloing and speed of hot jazz. Bob Dunn, one of the earliest electric steel guitar players, consciously imitated the style of contemporary jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden. Western swing bands, exemplified by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, played everything from fiddle tunes to hokum blues to Duke Ellington’s sophisticated swing compositions. When the big bands gave way to vocalists, country performers like Ernest Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford frequently recorded with pop singers like the Andrews Sisters and Kay Starr (try to imagine Tracy Lawrence cutting a single with J. Lo.) As the 40s closed out, Moon Mullican, Billy Jack Wills, the Maddox Bros. and many others all made music indebted to the jump blues popular on the R & B charts.
Then there was rock n’ roll. Elvis Presley is often presented as the first white man to be influenced by black music, neatly erasing country music’s entire history, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bill Haley. In fact, Elvis was at the end of a long tradition of borrowings by country music, from multiple sources (nobody ever mentions Elvis’ Patti Page cover….) It was his phenomenal crossover success, not his eclecticism, which was distinctive.
That success, though, had consequences — almost all bad, from country music’s perspective. After Elvis, musically inventive white kids — from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain — gravitated overwhelmingly to rock. Country was left largely to traditionalists like Merle Haggard, and to the odd aesthetic disaster like New Grass. Johnny Cash, Waylon, Willie, and a few other aging innovators who had started their careers before or shortly after rockabilly managed to hang on for quite a while, however. Largely because of their influence, country managed intelligent responses to the folk revival in the 60s and classic rock in the 70s.
By the 80s, though, country was largely down to artists who loved older styles (i.e., Lyle Lovett) and artists who loved how they looked on video (i.e., Garth Brooks.) And that’s pretty much where things have stayed ever since. Whether it’s the faithful country blues of Bloodshot’s Devil in the Woodpile, the Zeppelin clichés of the recent Loretta Lynn/White Stripes collaboration, the hippy singer/songwriter vibe of Iris Dement, or the tired AOR-ready sheen of the Dixie Chicks, the whole genre, from hitmakers to hipsters, seems as mired in nostalgia as an oldies station. Country has become the rallying point for anyone unhappy with any musical development of the last forty years — a moribund husk stitched together from the corpses of dead genres.
One exception is Bobby Bare Jr. The son of Bobby Bare — a thoughtful country-folk performer in the Johnny Cash mode — Bare Jr. is as obsessed with the past as the next child-of-famous-parents. But the history he cares about is varied and unpredictable enough that it has opened options for him rather than closing them down.
Bare’s first two albums were forgettable by-the-numbers alt. rock, bone-headed and, not coincidentally, whisky-soaked: when my wife saw him in Nashville ten years ago he was about as drunk as one human being could be (and this was at a show where his dad was in the audience!) For his third effort, though, he turned down the amplifiers, ratcheted back the alcohol consumption, and switched to Bloodshot. The last, along with his parentage, is the reason he gets shelved in the country bin, but the album he came up with fits nowhere easily. Certainly it isn’t comfortable next to anodyne No Depression groups like Whiskeytown or Uncle Tupelo, which dealt with their multiple rock and country influences by reducing everything to an indistinguishable sludge.
Young Criminals’ Starvation League, on the other hand, is like sleight-of-hand with a cuisinart; everything Bare ever listened to in the last thirty years seems to be chopped up in there somewhere, but it all appears and disappears so quickly that it’s hard to tell where one source ends and the next begins. Are the lovely vocals on “I’ll Be Around” inspired by Tyrannosaurus Rex or the Everly Brothers? Are the album’s dreamy, soulful horn lines more reminiscent of the MGs or of Love’s Forever Changes? Even on a cover of the Smiths “What Difference Does It Make,” Bare’s easy, shoulder-shrugging rendition seems as much Willie Nelson as Morrissey (though neither of those artists ever relied so much on steel guitar.) On “Dig Down,” Bare name-checks everyone from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townsend to Black Francis, complaining that they’ve stolen all the best ideas, leaving up-and-coming rockers with table scraps. “My Fender is just a painted board,” he wails, “And if I light it on fire I become such a fucking bore.” The song ends with a brief rendition of the “woo-hoo” chorus from “Sympathy for the Devil,” a tired rock shibboleth if there ever was one. The joke, though, is that Bare’s version is better than the original — his sparse, choreographed sloppiness is simultaneously more heartfelt, more fun, and more ironically knowing than the overblown Jagger/Richards multi-tracked dinosaur. After mentioning the Pixies on a country release and making the Rolling Stones seem worthwhile again, there wasn’t much left for Bare to do except walk on water.
His next full-length, this summer’s “From the End of Your Leash” isn’t quite miraculous. Instead, it’s more of the same, which is fine with me. As on the last album, there’s a lovely cover of a tune by Shel Silverstein, one of his dad’s favorite writers. There’s also a hidden track, and a reprise, part way through the album, of one of the early themes.
But while Bare seems to be running out of ideas in terms of structuring his albums, in other respects his muse seems as fertile as ever. In part, this is due to his intelligent choice of musicians, and his willingness to treat them as collaborators rather than sidemen. The results are extraordinary. On the album’s opener, for example, Andrew Bird comes out of nowhere to screech his way through a remarkable Hendrixoid solo on violin. Cory Younts provides the perfect touch of wistfulness to the piano hook on “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost).” In “Your Favorite Hat,” Carolyn Kotsionis’ child-like vocals chase Bare’s accented phrases around and around, like Shonen Knife trying to harmonize with Steve Earle. And Doni Schroader’s percussion is marvelous throughout.
It’s Bare though, who really makes the album something special; if anything, his writing style on this record is even more intricate than on the last. Just as one example, the super-catchy “Valentine” starts with a churning guitar riff before Bare and Will Oldham enter, singing harmony. Then a keyboard drifts in, followed by a Beatlesesque bass-line. At the bridge, trumpets enter playing a marching-band flourish. Then the whole thing stops for a bar, before a steel-guitar solo that’s grafted onto a syncopated backing. Then the vocals return, this time accompanied, in addition to the other instruments, by a baritone sax. There’s another pause, which seems to last for a fraction less than a measure, then the steel guitar comes back, this time accompanied by electric grunge (probably courtesy of Duane Denison of Jesus Lizard fame). There’s a false ending, a brief pause, and then a coda by the trumpets. Brian Wilson, eat your heart out.
Fussy arrangements were hugely successful for the Beach Boys, but they’re not a very lucrative choice for a roots rocker. Too much fey intellectualism and the fans start to suspect that you’re not down with the proles. Bare must know that he’s in a marketing limbo, but he doesn’t let it bother him. Instead, he uses his debt to, and distance from, both rock and country to mock both. Anyone expecting “Let’s Rock and Roll” to be a party anthem are in for a disappointment. The song opens with gently swaying music, and then Bare announces “I live on the floor of a minivan/driven by drunks across this land.” By the time he tells us that “there is vomit running down the walls/that vomit don’t care where it falls/and that vomit came out of someone/and that vomit should be cleaned up by someone,” rock decadence seems a lot less like good fun or tragic excess, and a lot more like an excuse to get someone else to clean up your shit. Admittedly, the tune features periodic loud, dissonant guitars, but they’re the wrong loud, dissonant guitars — Sonic Youth braininess rather than fist-shaking Kiss. In any case, given the lyrics and the otherwise dreamy pace of the song, it’s hard not to see the “rockin” section as a total put-on — okay, kids, time to raise your lighters.
The skewering of country on “Visit Me in Music City” is even funnier. Against a musical background which recalls some of Nashville’s excesses — including a full organ sound, singalong chorus, over-miked drums — Bare describes a fairyland where rural authenticity and marketing merge into a single, seamless whole. “The hills are filled with naked hee-haw honeys/ who all sing along in perfect harmony,” “guitar strings grow on shrubs and maple trees,” and “record deals fly in and out like happy bumble bees.” Bare even dares to suggest that country may not be quite as patriotic as Toby Keith likes to think; after all, “in pick up bars the country stars play Japanese guitars.” The coup-de-grace is Bare’s voice — he deliberately adopts ‘70s country phrasing, and ends up sounding a lot like his dad.
When Alan Jackson wrote about Nashville in his lugubrious “Murder on Music Row,” he was peddling straight-up nostalgia — things have gone to hell since ol’Hank’s day. In the first line of “Visit Me in Music City,” Bare claims that he was “born at the Ryman Auditorium during the Martha White portion of the Grand Ole Opry.” Martha White is a bakery products company, and was an Opry sponsor. Bare knows that country’s always been commercial and more than a bit hypocritical. That’s why it’s important not to take it — or any genre — too seriously. Bare uses history, but he doesn’t wallow in it. As such, he’s much truer to country’s past and present than almost all of his more reverent contemporaries.