Showing posts with label Country and Western Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Country and Western Music. Show all posts

Monday, November 2, 2009


The pedal steel guitar is to drunken self-pity what the amplified, distorted electric guitar is to drunken licentiousness. Two instruments, two forms of implied behavior as expressed in American popular music. When Elvis was growing up, country music was the music of community, of a shared culture. That community was represented by the Carter Family, who sang about home, about death, and about the acceptance of limits. In contrast, the so-called “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers, was actually country music’s outlaw, a man who refused to live within proscribed limits. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers thus formed two sides of the same coin, and each has their advantages and their downsides (see Greil Marcus, “Elvis: Presliad,” in Mystery Train). The community side could be intolerably oppressive and stifling, while the outlaw side led to exclusion and tragedy.

According to Marcus, what had virtually disappeared from country music by the time Elvis came along was the celebration of the outlaw style, the refusal to live within established boundaries—country music had become too moralistic and realistic. It lacked, Marcus says, “excitement, rage, fantasy, delight” (Mystery Train 131). Elvis dreamed of making the transgressive side of country music—the wild Saturday nights—the whole of life. Instead of being merely a temporary escape from established limits, the music Elvis made at Sun suggested that escape from limits could be established as a permanent way of life, but one in which acceptance alternated with liberation. Arguably, the Beatles kept alive the transgressive side of Elvis’s music and it was this feature upon which Sixties rock was founded. Feedback, distortion, playing loud—noise—became the aural equivalent of transgression, to the giddy excesses of being completely drunk and totally stoned. The so-called “Nashville Sound” that emerged in the Sixties became the aural equivalent of the virtues of the (staid) community, and hence of boundaries and limits. Rock and country music thus came to embody certain values, and music became an expression of ideology. The Western shirt was to country what the tie-dyed T-shirt was to rock. Music was worn like clothes.

Friday, November 21, 2008


According to the OED, the English word “yodel” is derived from the German jodeln, meaning, “to sing or warble with interchange of the ordinary and falsetto voice, in the manner of Swiss and Tyrolese mountaineers.” But while strongly associated with these mountaineers, the yodel is a form of singing known throughout the world. According to Bart Plantenga, author of Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, “the law of yodeling” is written in the epiglottis, an elastic band of cartilage located at the root of the tongue that folds over the glottis (trachea) in order to prevent food and liquid from entering the trachea during the act of swallowing (13). Initially a form of singing confined to the mountains of Kentucky—that is, a feature of “hillbilly” music—eventually the yodel helped to define “western,” as in “country western,” music. According to Michael Jarrett, it was Jimmie Rodgers’ “Yodeling Cowboy,” recorded on 22 October 1929, that designated the “shift in the connotations that would eventually redefine country music as mythically “western,” not “hillbilly” (182). And while you practice your yodel, you might want to wear a Nudie suit while listening, first, to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” series of recordings. A-DEE-oh-lay-EE-tee.

Bart Plantenga, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, 2003)

A Good Yodeler Is Hard To Find, But Here Are Some Essential Recordings:
Eddy Arnold, “Cattle Call” The Essential Eddy Arnold (RCA)
Focus, “Hocus Pocus” Moving Waves (Capitol)
Merle Haggard, “Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)” Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimme Rodgers (Koch)
Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, “The Yodel Song” Alive in America (Renaissance)
Emmett Miller, “Lovesick Blues” The Minstrel Man From Georgia (Columbia/Legacy)
Jimmie Rodgers, The Essential Jimmie Rodgers (RCA)
Roy Rogers, “The Devil’s Great Grandson” The King of the Cowboys (Living Era)
Sly and the Family Stone, “Spaced Cowboy” There’s a Riot Going On (Epic)
Don Walser, Rolling Stone From Texas (Watermelon)
Slim Whitman, Greatest Hits (Curb)
Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor)
Various Artists, American Yodeling, 1911—1946 (Living Era)
Various Artists, Cattle Call, Early Cowboy Music and Its Roots (Rounder)
Various Artists, The Ultimate Yodelling Collection (Castle/Pulse)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Sound of Money

There is an oft-repeated story that once when Chet Atkins, at the time the country & western music producer at RCA Victor, was asked to describe the so-called “Nashville sound” he helped to create, he shook the loose change in his pocket and replied, “It’s the sound of money.” His response was not so much evasive as it was a statement of fact, for the post-World War II rise of the Nashville or “countrypolitan” sound was in fact a way to address the general problem of how to make money. Essentially the “Nashville sound” was pop production (studio engineering) applied to country songs. As Michael Jarrett observes, the Nashville sound was an attempt to refashion country & western as “pop music for adults” (p. 256). The two primary architects of the Nashville sound were Chet Atkins at RCA Victor and Owen Bradley at Decca. The Nashville sound might be best understood by looking at the following set of structural oppositions, the features characterizing the “Honky Tonk” sound—the pre-war sound of c&w that continued through the mid-50s or so—on the left, with the features of the Nashville sound on the right:

  • Raw/Cooked
  • Found/Made
  • Folk/Pop
  • Fiddles/Strings
  • Volume/Crooning
  • Kitty Wells/Patsy Cline
  • Jimmie Rodgers/Jim Reeves
  • "T For Texas"/"He’ll Have to Go"
Faced with the competition of rock ‘n’ roll (or “rockabilly”), the country & western industry reinvented itself as a pop music industry, adapting pop music song structures and pop music production (studio engineering). Hence early examples of rock musicians making country albums (e.g., The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968) can be understood not so much as “country rock” but as attempts to recover a rawer, more “authentic” form of country & western music, one that hearkened back to a time prior to the invention of the "slick" Nashville sound.