Like most people for whom listening to music is a daily (and nightly) concern, I go through phases – for two weeks, I might be into a heavy progressive phase, which might be followed by a funk phase, or maybe a palate-cleansing immersion in singer-songwriter stuff for a few days. It always circles around, for me at least. This past week, it circled around to country.
An awful lot of modern country seems cynically prepackaged, in my estimation. It is, in its present-day get-up, a music that fulfills the old adage, "If you don't know your past, then you're ill-equipped to plot your future." Country music and Bon Jovi-esque power ballads make strange bedfellows, but the dividing line between the two seems to be disappearing rapidly. Maybe you find this new "fusion" exciting. I don't. I prefer country music that's rooted in folk, boasts strong musicianship and incisive (often bittersweet) lyrics, and doesn't require that the listener be adorned in some sort of clique-approved uniform while listening to it. I like harmonies. Great guitar playing. Humor, sometimes, and heartbreak at others.
Which brings me to some modern country albums I've fallen for over the past two weeks.
The first of these comes from the study in contradictions that is Nashville's Jamey Johnson. Johnson looks like a more physically fit version of famed producer Rick Rubin, crossed with a veteran biker, with a dash of Rob Zombie thrown in. He is not your average modern country visage. But he plays his butt off, sings in a lovely low-country tenor and, as far as I have been able to ascertain, never panders (or condescends) to his audience by flag-waving, Bible-thumping or employing thinly veiled "the South's gonna rise again" rhetoric. Johnson's Steve Earle-like approach to country music has already earned him much critical respect, but on Oct. 16, Johnson will make plain the full breadth of his knowledge of country music history. On that date, he'll release "Livin' For a Song," an album that pays tribute to the late, justly revered American songwriter Hank Cochran. Cochran wrote many stone-cold country classics, among them "Make the World Go Away," "I Fall To Pieces," "She's Got You" and "Set 'em Up Joe." Johnson cherry-picks a bunch of his favorites for "Livin' For a Song," and enlists the likes of Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ray Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Elvis Costello, George Strait and Willie Nelson, among others, to help him celebrate Cochran's genius. It's a beautiful thing.
Lukas Nelson – yup, Willie's son – is not content to trade off of his name. Instead, he formed his own band, Promise of the Real – the seed of the band was planted when Nelson met drummer Anthony LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert, in 2008 – and hit the road. Nelson does indeed possess a high tenor not unlike his father's, but Promise of the Real's latest effort, "Wasted," is gritty, guitar-heavy and super soulful, without ever forsaking its country music essence.
Finally, the 2011 release from the Pistol Annies, "Hell on Heels," is a devilishly strong cocktail of classic and modern country music tropes, shaken and stirred and served neat. The trio was formed as a side project by country superstar Miranda Lambert, who apparently was seeking to explore her grittier side with friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. If you are a fan of Emmylou Harris' band Spyboy, you'll dig the Pistol Annies, big time.
A final recommendation – Johnson's "Livin' For a Song" doesn't come out until Oct. 16 in the digital format, but the vinyl is out now. Just sayin'.
At least once a week, I get a letter, an email, or an anonymous voicemail from someone insisting that I should acknowledge the "fact" that I hate country music and am biased against it.
The idea of me hating country music? It doesn't hold water. I've never written off an entire genre of music. I am loyal to musicians who play hip-hop, metal, pop, folk, hard rock, soft rock, disco, jam band, jazz, African rock and pop, Jamaican reggae, ska and dub, techno, prog rock, funk, soul, R&B, rock 'n' roll, blues, and various permutations thereof. And yes, I like an awful lot of country, too.
What I don't like is the implied idea that these musical classification systems – which were designed so that people who sell stuff could market directly to certain demographic subdivisions – are somehow mutually exclusive. If you accept that they are, then what you're doing is, in effect, joining a club based on lifestyle choices you share with other members of that club. Perhaps that lifestyle demands that you wear a cowboy hat or short shorts. Maybe it means you are covered in tattoos and wear only black. Whatever. The point is, none of this has to do with music. Music is not fashion. And the job of a music critic is not to make someone who might read those writings feel cool and groovy about whatever lifestyle decisions they may have made.