Welcome to THE PLAYLIST, where we pick a theme and, er, make a playlist around it. Sometimes you might get an essay, other times you might get just one sentence as a precursor to the laser-focused audio delights that await below. Joshua Hughes waxes lyrical on a genre near and dear to his world-weary heart; COUNTRY.
“I’ll listen to literally anything, except country” is a common refrain heard by wankers who won’t, in fact, listen to anything and who are turning a blind eye to an incredibly rich and unique genre of music. This is most likely on the basis that they think it’s all line dancing and ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ (which is not to say that the latter isn’t a tune of the highest order, because it clearly is). It is surprising, too, as smug hipsters the world over have turned to bluegrass and other forms of music which are very similar in both substance and in sound that listening to old Merle Haggard records isn’t seen as trendy. Perhaps it is still to come.
This playlist will hopefully serve as evidence that country can be many things, not just soppy songs about having a broken heart. It is frequently that, but there’s nobody better at it either. Only someone with a heart of stone could not be touched by Tammy Wynette’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, about a mother going through a divorce and trying to hide that fact from her child, using the once innocent method of spelling out words to do so. Ditto for David Allan Coe’s ‘She Used to Love Me a Lot’, about a man who pathetically tries to go back to the woman he dumped or George Jones’ self-explanatory ‘If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)’.
Country shares characteristics with every variety of folk music, with soul, rock and even hip hop. They are songs typically written by and for people who come from economically and educationally starved backgrounds, whose lives have been ravaged by poverty and substance abuse. Old Crow Medicine Show (famous for writing ‘Wagon Wheel’, which went onto be brutally ravaged and popularised in Ireland by Nathan Carter) write poignantly and simply about the scourge of drug abuse on these communities in ‘Methamphetamine’ – “But mama she ain’t hungry no more/She’s waiting for a knock on the trailer door”. In Hank Williams’ beautiful ‘Ramblin’ Man’, the haunting spectre of the railroad and the train – a frequent theme in Williams and others’ work – hangs over every word. It represents hope and escape, but also the gloomy existence of people who feel like they have no roots or reason to settle.
His son, Hank Jr., has an equally titanic catalogue of work that features much more of the family’s trademark rebellious streak than that of Hank Sr’s. ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’, with its thumping drums, apocalyptic opening lines (“The preacher man says it’s the end of time/And the Mississippi River she’s a going dry”), juxtaposition between country and city life and obstinate defence of the Southern way of life is iconic. Hank Williams III is also a preciously talented artist in his own right, and retains the same fearlessness of his father and grandfather. He is more likely to be heard singing about going on wild, drug-fuelled benders (for example on the high tempo ‘Crazed Country Rebel’) and has incorporated other genres in the way that few others have. ‘Ghost to a Ghost’ is as much doom metal as country and it works in a way that sounds surprisingly natural.
It isn’t all gloomy, however, and country does party songs as well as anyone else. Garth Brooks’ catalogue sadly is not available anywhere, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better drinking song than ‘Friends in Low Places’ or ‘Two Pina Coladas’. Toby Keith’s ‘Red Solo Cup’, an ode to the iconic house party beverage container, is infectious and even Snoop Dogg gets in on the act with the weed-fuelled ‘My Medicine’ featuring Willie Nelson and Everlast, of all people. But don’t just take my word for it, grab a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, break out some chewing tobacco and give our playlist a spin.