Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Country & Western - Telling Life's Stories

I grew up in the Rock 'n Roll generation, but Country and Western has always been my kind of music. I think I know why.

I think it’s because Country music is for grownups. Rock has been, and always will be, adolescent. Other forms of popular music feature roll playing. Sinatra having us pretend we are social sophisticates. Andy Williams sickening me with “Moon River, wider than a mile…I’m crossing you in style some day,” and “June, Moon, Spoon” too. Ella Fitzgerald, a great songstress of banal lyrics.

There’s the key. It’s the lyrics, stupid! A song is a story, packaged in a way that deeply stirs our emotions.

When I’m alone, I’m often driving with tears in my eyes, listening to Country music on my Ipod. And most of the time, the music is not sad, and often it’s very happy. But the tears flow nevertheless, because tears are my tribute to beauty.

Country performers are usually great musical craftsmen. The Statler Brothers polished their harmonies for years singing gospel music, and then applied it to great story-telling like “the Class of '57 had its dreams.” George Jones, sometimes with Tammy Wynette, portrayed adult love, loss, and longing in a way few ever have. “I know you’re tired of following, my elusive dreams and schemes…”

Hank Williams, Sr., celebrating the Cajuns of Louisiana with Jambaya (On the Bayou):

“Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my-o,
I got to go pole my pirogue down the bayou,
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my-o,
Sonofagun, we’ll have big fun, on the bayou.”

And, “Hey Good Lookin' (What cha got cookin'?).” Then a whole lot more.

Loretta Lynn, being a young mother:

“They say to have her hair done Liz flies all the way to France
And Jackie's seen in a discotheque doin' a brand new dance
And the White House social season should be glittering and gay
But here in Topeka the rain is a fallin'
The faucet is a drippin' and the kids are a bawlin'
One of them a toddlin' and one is a crawlin' and one's on the way”

Forgive me when I say, in my humble opinion, Loretta Lynn had a lot to say, and said it a lot better, than all the legions of rock ‘n roll songwriters dedicating their efforts towards the celebrations of lovesick adolescents.

Often I listen to Folk music too, from whence came County music. To the heart tugging eloquence of the Irish, who when they’re not glorifying drinking whiskey, tell many of the most interesting stories ever put to music.

My love of their stories began over fifty years ago, with the first haunting words, “Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes, are calling.” You could write a novel, make a movie, an opera, a Broadway musical, from the story line of that haunting song.

The same can be said for humorous Irish songs, like “The Mountains of Mourne.”

“Ah Mary this London’s a wonderful sight
With the people here working by day and by night
They don’t plant potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat
But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.”

All of these songs have elements – mature insight, humor, religious conviction, appreciation of mortality, of honor, of loyalty, liberty, freedom – not the sorts of things that make sub-teenage girls, or wannabe gangstas, put their mother’s or father’s hard earned money down to buy a recording of a song written and performed with almost a total absence of musical talent or redeeming social value. It’s throw-away music, music that is so eminently forgettable that it won’t even make it to elevator-music immortality.

At least to be elevator music a song has to have a recognizable, catchy melody. The lack of such pretty much defines today’s popular music. To those who don’t, won’t, would never listen to country & western or folk music, it’s your loss. It’s music that makes you laugh, makes you cry, puts a smile on your face, a tear in your eye. It tells the story of life.

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