Playing Favorites: Country Music Part 4, Playing Favorites (AKA I love Country Music)

Welcome to part four with even MORE country music!

So I have now detailed how I came to country music, the shit show of the last ten + years in the mainstream, and the absence of females on the country charts, on radio, at awards shows.

But I still haven’t explained WHY is country music one of my favorites?

Well I had other stuff to say first, to set the record straight on country music. And honestly I had not discussed it because the reason is hard to pin down. And so I had to get out other thought first an examine my own fandom.

Off Ramp: I also really like bluegrass music. I have not discussed it much here because there is some crossover with country music so I thought it might get a little repetitive. Also I am not versed enough in bluegrass to discuss how it is different from and similar to country music. From what I do know the best way to describe for me is to say, “country music is to bluegrass what blues is to jazz music”.

And there is definite a difference because last year I saw a small little bluegrass family trio of siblings at a local bar and when discussing music with them after the show I asked who their favorite country artists were and they said they did really know many country artists outside Dolly or Willie. But they knew Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Bill Monroe, and Flats and Scruggs. I mention this story because it illustrated to me that there is a REAL distinction to be made between country music bluegrass. And the artists in those genres and the fans know those distinctions even while I as a music fan don’t really care so much about them know what they are.

OK. Back on the highway!

The short answer as to why I LOVE country music is this – The best country music makes me happy, makes, me dance, makes me cry, makes me feel something deep inside. No other music genres make me feel all those things across the board. Some genres may check a few boxes but country music checks them all.

And unlike most pop and dance music the best country music makes me feel all of that without too much in the way of gimmicks. In other words the best stuff, “shoots straight”.

Here is a short list what I like about the best country music that I find missing in mainstream pop music and many other genres I like, especially in the modern era:

  • Strong storytelling with personal lyrics
  • Songs going interesting places and not just a chorus on repeat
  • Key changes, chord changes, bridges, solos
  • Real physical instruments and no studio gimmicks (no studio simulations of instruments)
  • No heavy handed production with amped up bass for no reason
  • Clear vocals at the front of the mix (so you can hear and understand the lyrics)
  • Less vocal effects or auto-tune
  • Choruses are not a cut a paste job
  • More often than not the vocalists can actually sing
  • Vocalists sing straight, in service of the lyrics not to prove something or win a contest
  • The person holding the instrument can usually play that instrument well (meaning the guitar is not a prop)

As somebody who LOVED pop music and gay club anthems growing up and still does, country music offers the compliment to what that music lacks while still making me dance. And that is why the best pop and rock songs also require STRONG production. To help fill in where the lyrics do not. That is neither good nor bad just different.

It is why a song like, “I Saw Her Standing There” by The Beatles is so iconic. Because lyrically it’s pretty simple (it was written by teenagers after all). But the production and musicianship elevate the lyrics becoming one of my favorite songs The Beatles ever cut. But when you read the lyrics aloud by themselves there is not much meat.

Well she was just seventeen
You know what I mean
And the way she looked
Was way beyond compare
So how could I dance with another,
Oh, when I saw her standing there

Great production is also why a song like, “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” by Kylie Minogue works so well and has become one of the greatest songs ever recorded because all the bits work together perfectly. And as much as I love a good Kylie song, lyrically it’s not going to take me on much of a journey or speak to anything in me that is really deep a personal. Because when the lyrics are left on their own them are pretty weak, honestly.

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy, your lovin’ is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy, its more than I dare to think about

Pretty basic, no? But listen to full track.

Yeah… that’s one of the greats. Any genre. Ever.

The other aspect of country lyrics that I like is they are very often direct, there is no guessing what a song is about unlike something written by Stevie Nicks or Kate Bush or some of later The Beatles songs. Look at a song like, “Dreams” written by Stevie Nicks

Now here I go again
I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself

Fabulous poetic imagery. But what is she on about with, “crystal visions”?

And to return to The Beatles as they evolved so to did the lyrical style and writing. Take a beautiful song like “Across The Universe”.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

Brilliant stuff that is. And with the music that helps elevate it, it becomes one helluva a song. And while it is poetic it is definitely not direct. Lots of ways to take those lyrics.

Or let’s look at the opening verse to one of my all time favorite songs ever, “Pacing The Cage” by Bruce Cockburn.

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward

This is a case (as with “Across The Universe”) where we have both song-lyrics and literal poetry. It doesn’t happen often, even though most folks think it is a regular feature of song-lyrics, when it isn’t. Very few song-writers also write poetry (but that another discussion). This song is on my crying playlist when I need to have it out. And I get the overall meaning of the song and it’s message but this is in NO WAY direct.

I think country music so often “shoots straight” because it was the music of the people out in the “country” after all. Folks who usually were not highly educated. So it was sort of a, “keep it simple stupid” ethos by necessity. As an example of direct lyrics that keep it simple, one of my all time favorite country songs is, “Love At The Five And Dime”, a song made into a country hit by Kathy Mattea but THE version to hear is the one by Nanci Griffith who originally wrote and recorded it, especially the version from Live at Austin City Limits.

Rita was sixteen years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair
She made the Woolworth counter shine
And Eddie was a sweet romancer, and a darn good dancer
And they’d waltz the aisles of the five and dime

And they’d sing

Dance a little closer to me, dance a little closer now
Dance a little closer tonight
Dance a little closer to me, ’cause it’s closing time
And love’s on sale tonight at this five and dime

Here we have a concrete story about two people. It almost reads like a short story. And reading the lyrics aloud by themselves they are pretty decent and definitely direct and very specific but even these lyrics while above average are song lyrics and it is only once they are built into a full song that one feels all of it.

And this where the lyrics, the straight ahead singing, and the production all combine to make something that is very specific feel universal thus becoming the magic we call the music we love.

Another example is a song like Ashley McBryde’s, “Girl Going Nowhere”. As I said in my review of the recent Ashley McBryde show at The Fillmore, “I’m not a Girl Going nowhere” but that song definitely speaks to me with it’s overall themes.

Don’t waste your life behind that guitar
You may get gone, but you won’t get far
You’re not the first, you won’t be the last
And you can tell us all about it when you come crawling back
That road you’re on, just winds and winds
Your spinning your wheels and wasting you’re time

But when the lights come up
And I hear the band
And where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am
I hear the crowd
I look around
And I can’t find an empty chair
Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere

This was MY childhood people pooping all over my dreams and aspirations and treating me like I was somebody with ZERO future. I am not a girl, I don’t play guitar, I’m not out on the road but the specifics make it even more personal because it IS personal. And I understand exactly what she means. But again, those lyrics on their own are decent (even above par for a major label artist) but when you take them and make them into a well produced song, it HITS.

Whereas a pop artists might write about those same themes in a much more vague way to try appeal to more people and it may become a hit but it won’t “hit” the same way because it lacks the direct personal imagery. And that is fine except that it offers me no real window into the artist, making it harder to connect to on a deeper level because it is kinda of just there.

So what you might say, it’s pop music. Well maybe we should hold pop to the same standards of lyricism in the best jazz, country, and Broadway musicals. Maybe then we’ll get better product. And there are some pop artists putting out some stellar work with meaningful lyrics (just not in the mainstream realm) but that is not what this post is about. This is about country music and why I love it.

And the best way to express that love is to show (not tell) you why I love it! But as I just wrote that I remembered another VERY important reason I love country music.

I really started to get deep into country music in serious, in my early thirties. The exact same time I had an emotional breakdown, went into depression, and got suicidal. It it was that “lonesome” sound of country music (especially the ballads) that I would often have on repeat. It was the soundtrack when I cried lying alone on the side of back road having run off without a plan just to try escape my own pain. The music just felt like it was coming from people who really lived life and had more relatable and “honest” experiences. Madonna never really seemed to sing about her personal struggles or life to connect with people. She wanted to party. And again, people like Tori Amos as amazing as she is with lyrics… was never as direct. Country music was just right. There. Upfront. Saying I understand and we’ll take this journey together.

No need to get into the gritty details of that decade of my life here but you can here more about the power of music in my interview for SoundwavesTV below.

So when bringing this all to a close I thought why not for the final in this series of playing favorites on country music, get to playing favorites?

Since it is one of my all time favorite genres picking favorites is rather hard… I tried to pick six artists to discuss We’ll see how I do… but don’t come after me if this explodes to fifty favorites!

1. Roy Orbison

While not specifically country I have him at the top because he’s in my top five all time and informed much of the way I think and feel about music overall, from singing (that voice) to song-writing (the non-standard lyrical structures). He also just seemed effortlessly cool unlike so many of the other music stars I saw growing up. And despite personal tragedy, he always seemed like he held it together and was just a nice guy who liked to have fun making music.


2. Mary Chapin Carpenter

Lyrics. Lyrics. Lryics. Direct and specific lyrics that hit. This woman has drafted some of the best lyrics of all time. The fact she is not known much outside some country circles and musicians is everyone else’s loss. She came around in the late 80s into the 90s and managed to record her own lyrics (not common for females in country music then) in a way that doesn’t feel dated like a lot of 80s/90s country music can feel. Also she knew how to select songs by other song-writers that perfectly suited her style from people as varied as Lucinda Williams and Mark Knofler. C’mon C’mon is one the best written records any genre.

3. Lyle Lovett

Lyle does a mish-mash of sounds. In the modern era he’d get labeled Americana. But I like that he gets playful and fun with lyrics and songs. He can be silly on a song like, “Penguins” or funny on a song like, “Church” but also has delivered one of my ultimate crying songs, “If I Had A Boat” a song I came to in my thirties at peak depression that in some ways sailed me though that depression. And well, Lyle is also has a horn section. That’s a plus. Oh, he also covered my theme song, “Bears” originally by Steve Formholz.

4. Pam Tillis

Of all the 90s country breakouts Pam is my favorite because she is the most straight unabashedly honky-tonkin’. Her father was Mel Tillis and I think that helped her stay more true to the twang thang whereas many others had strong pop-ish leanings. Also she was willing to be a little camp and never seemed to be too serious about it all while still being serious about the traditions.

5. Merle Haggard

Talk about shootin’ straight! Out the big 5 of male country legends, Johhny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Merle Haggard, something about Merle Haggard’s music just resonates with me more than the others. It feels like it has a great balance of “middle finger’ to Nashville (he did help create the Bakersfield Sound), being ornery and mean, while also having a softer side and being a nice guy at the end of the day. Plus I admit to home state favoritism as he was from CA.

6. Dwight Yoakum

In the 80s when Dwight was first starting out labels told him he was, “too country” and that is just fine by me. Pam Tillis, The Mavericks, Dale Watson, and Dwight are the country acts of the “old school” I turn to most when I want to go into party mode. Totally reliable in terms of barn burning songs to get me energized and pumped up. And he can sling a mean guitar!

Some of other favorites of the last century for me include:
Tanya Tucker
Bobbie Gentry
Emmylou Harris
The Mavericks
Guy Clark
Alan Jackson
Marty Stuart
Vince Gill

I made a list of more modern country acts in a previous post in this series but I just want to pick out a few favorites for specific shout outs.

1. Dale Watson

While not “modern” per se, he is new to me and he is keeping it real and keeping it REAL honky-tonk. This man’s music is always a good time and often hilarious and sometimes VERY pointed. He knows how to both rip it up and to rip somebody a new one.

2. Tami Nielsen

Tami is best vocalist going any genre as I’ve been shouting for many years now. But she covers a lot of styles that are country adjacent making her like a modern day Elvis and also heir to the throne of sass occupied by Wanda Jackson. A great balance of fun songs, fired up songs, and songs about some personal business going down.

3. Sunny Sweeney

Initially music row tried to push her as Miranda Lambert/Taylor Swift pop-country type. But when the labels went full bro and ignored her all together she became one of many women who said, “I’ll do it myself, thanks” and just went even harder into the country sounds and got more personal and specific in the lyrics. She also, has a great balance of fun songs for a Friday and some Sunday morning coming down material. She is definitely part of the outlaw tradition in country music.

4. Gabe Lee

Like Sunny Sweeney, Gabe Lee is criminally ignored by Music Row, which I guess says that Nashville just doesn’t know how to market the kind of honesty Gabe is selling on his albums. But he keeps putting out one stellar album/song after the next to loss of everyone who is not in the know. I fear he may be TOO GOOD because folks like Corb Lund, John Pardi and even Charley Crockett are making bigger waves with more accessible and great (but ultimately lesser) material. Gabe should not be in the kinds of small venues he is playing but he is playing them, which tells you music comes first for him. And you definitely feel it when you see him live. Even if it is just one person and a guitar, he still goes harder than many arena acts.

So to close this all out here is a sampler of some of my favorite country artists and country songs. And it is another fine jumping off point into the world of country music and bluegrass.

However, unlike previous samplers where I tried to keep to ten this sampler has lots of bonus beats.

Set List:

    1. Emily Duff – Eggs All Day
    2. Lyle Lovett – Bears
    3. Carlene Carter – Every Little Thing
    4. Rodney Crowell – Walk The Line (Revisited)
    5. Merlel Haggard – I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink
    6. Travis Tritt – Here’s A Quarter Call Someone Who Cares
    7. Darci Carlton – Rat City
    8. Lindi Ortega – All These Cats
    9. Patty Loveless – Halfway Down
    10. The Trishas – Trouble About My Soul
    11. Tom Jones – Did Trouble Me
    12. Nanci Griffith – Love At The Five And Dime
    13. Rosanne Cash – I’m Movin’ On
    14. Emmylou Harris – Two More Bottles Of Wine
    15. Eddie Rabbit – Drivin’ My Life Away
    16. Joe Diffie – Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)
    17. Corb Lund & Jaida Dreyer – I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey
    18. Susan Raye – Watcha Gonna Do With A Dog Like That
    19. Cindy Cashdollar – Twin Guitar Special
    20. Della Mae, Molly Tuttle, Avril Smith – Bourbon Hound
    21. Wonder Women Of Country – Fly Ya To Hawaii
    22. Georgette Jones & Vince Gill – I Know What You Did Last Night
    23. Whitey Morgan & The 78s – Where Do You Want It
    24. Sunney Sweeny – Tie Me Up
    25. Joyce Green – Black Cadillac
    26. Pam Tillis – In Between Dances
    27. Brooks & Dunn – Neon Moon
    28. Brandy Clark – Pawn Shop
    29. Emily Scott Robinson – Let ‘em Burn
    30. Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Road Is Just A Road
    31. First Aid Kit – It’s A Shame
    32. Secret Sisters – Rattle My Bones
    33. Sturgill Simpson – Some Days
    34. Dale Watson And His Lonestars – Thanks To Tequila
    35. Tami Nielsen – Lonely
    36. Gabe Lee – All I Can Do Is Write About It
    37. Don Williams – Better Than Today
    38. Heather Myles – You’re Gonna Love One Day
    39. Dwight Yoakum – Fast As You
    40. Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman (Live)
    41. Roo Arcus – Get’er Done Kinda Man
    42. Marty Stuart – Tempted
    43. Caitlin Rose – Menagerie
    44. Jenni Dale Lord Band – Willie I’ll Drink To That
    45. Tanya Tucker – Texas (When I Die)
    46. Miranda Lambert – Dark Bars
    47. Ashley McBryde – Girl Goin’ Nowhere
    48. Kree Harrison – Chosen Family Tree
    49. Patti Fiasco Band – Saved By Rock ‘n’ Roll
    50. Wylie and the Wild West – Buck Up And Huck It
    51. Linda Gail Lewis – Round Too Long
    52. Susan McCann – The Older I Get…
      Johnny Cash – Southern Accent
      All of them

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