In this week’s Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano defends the often maligned genre of country music. Listen to this week’s mixtape on Spotify here! Transcript below.
[“I Fall to Pieces”-Patsy Cline]
Howdy y’all, and welcome to Monday Mixtape. Country music has gotten a bad rap in recent times because of the popularity of the stale frat boy hijinks of acts like Florida-Georgia Line. However, it is wrong to dismiss a genre with as rich a history just because a few morons got popular. Bare with me as I defend this oft-derided genre of music. My first piece of evidence is “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline, who simply can’t hold it together whenever she sees her ex around town. Supported by traditional country instruments, Cline’s emotional longing can still be felt over 50 years later. Her life cut way too short in a 1963 plane crash, she remains one of country music’s tragic figures.
[“I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”-Hank Williams]
Hank Williams is country’s other tragic figure, as his drug and alcohol abuse caught up to him and he died of heart failure before he turned 30. However, Williams’ simple country tunes cast a long shadow that is still felt in country music today. “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry” is one of Williams’ most iconic songs. Accompanied by three guitars, a bass and a fiddle, Williams’ agonized vocals describe a lonely night where not even the moon and the birds can help themselves from weeping. A subtle steel guitar solo helps to create the desperate atmosphere on the track. This cowboy has seen some better days.
[“Folsom Prison Blues (live)”-Johnny Cash]
Taking inspiration from “rock and roll,” a group of anti-establishment country singers began writing odes to no-good criminals and wrongdoers while bucking the clean country sound of Nashville. This subgenre is known as “outlaw country.” The biggest outlaw of them all was the man in black himself, Johnny Cash. Sympathetic to the poor conditions of prisoners in Folsom Prison, one of the biggest jails at the time, Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” from the perspective of a prisoner yearning to escape on the nearby train. This version of the song is from Cash’s acclaimed live album recorded inside California's Folsom State Prison, and the audience of prisoners is audibly excited to hear Cash stoically sing about shooting a man in Reno and its consequences. While these outlaw country singers were tough, they also had hearts.
[“Georgia on my Mind”-Willie Nelson]
Willie Nelson could sing about murder with the best of them, but he also had a knack for introspection. His cover of “Georgia on My Mind,” a song made famous by Ray Charles, puts Nelson the romantic on full display. While some argue as to whether the “Georgia” in the title refers to a girl or the state, “Georgia on My Mind” is a song about remembering the past and music’s ability to take us back to better times. Nelson’s warm vocals capture that sense of nostalgia in a way that seems effortless. The ease with which Nelson can convey complex emotions is why he is one of country’s greatest singers. A harmonica solo helps Nelson through his trip down memory lane. While it's hard to compete with the Ray Charles classic, Nelson’s version is a worthy contender.
[“9 to 5”-Dolly Parton]
Believe it or not, Dolly Parton is actually an accomplished country singer. “9 to 5,” the theme song to a movie with the same name, is a lively anthem for all women stuck in menial office jobs. The picture of being another step on the boss-man’s ladder might be grim, but the horns and the upbeat chorus can help anyone persevere long enough to get that paycheck and keep dreaming of that promotion. “9 to 5” exemplifies the working class roots of country that make it such a populist genre. Sometimes, though, that working class anxiety was more aggressive.
[“Graveyard Shift”-Uncle Tupelo]
Equal parts punk rock and honky tonk, Uncle Tupelo helped establish “alternative country.” Lead singer Jay Farrar added a country twang to the primal guitars that dominated the emerging alternative rock scene in the ‘90s. “Graveyard Shift,” the first song off their debut album “No Depression,” shows off the band’s debt to hardcore punk. In between crushing guitars, Farrar challenges you to escape the hopelessness of the graveyard shift. His vocals sound lifted from a 1970s “outlaw” album. By now you know that old country rules, but contemporary country also has a few gems.
[“Turtles All the Way Down”-Sturgill Simpson]
Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down” belongs to the outlaw tradition, but has a more psychedelic twist. The keyboards and production effects provided by Dave Cobb create a field of haze around the traditional country guitar ballad. Simpson’s meditations on celestial imagery, which eventually gives way to him straight up listing different drugs that he’s taken, adds to the far out nature of the song. Simpson’s sonic experimentation may push him outside the boundaries of country, but the fundamentals of his songwriting can be traced all the way back to Hank Williams.
And that is it for Monday Mixtape. Why don’t y’all mozy on down to Spotify where this week’s playlist is available at mondaymixtape. I hope that admitting that I like country music won’t stop you from taking my taste in music seriously. For NBN Audio, I’m Marco Cartolano.