Country Music 101

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By Bill Friskics-Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 13, 2005

When people talk about country music, they tend to do so as if it is one generic sound or sensibility. This isn't the case, say, with rock -- a catch-all term aficionados parse into everything from emo, punk and hardcore to rap, garage and heavy metal. Yet country music, which among other things encompasses bluegrass, honky-tonk, countrypolitan, Western swing and sundry shades of rock, is as varied and elastic as any genre of popular music.

Consider the late Johnny Cash, whose life and music is celebrated in director James Mangold's upcoming movie "Walk the Line." Cash's career traversed rockabilly, gospel music, corn-pone humor, blues and old outlaw ballads, and included covers of songs written by Beck, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Trent Reznor. And this is to say nothing of his magnificent originals. Cash's legacy contains multitudes of influences, serving as a Rushmore-like monument to country music at its visionary and expansive best.

Putting together a list of country's greatest recordings that reflects the music's diversity, not to mention serves as both an introduction for new fans and a refresher course for devotees, is an almost impossible task. That said, here are 10 that country music couldn't have done without:

"BLUE YODEL," Jimmie Rodgers (Victor, 1928). Rodgers wasn't the first singer to record "hillbilly" music, but he was country's first star, and arguably its first self-conscious artist. His adopted persona, the "Singing Brakeman," was as much lived as it was fabricated. This 78-rpm recording was the first and bestselling in his series of "Blue Yodels" and it introduced the indelible tagline -- "T for Texas, T for Tennessee" -- to the world while pointing the way for future superstars from Hank Snow and Hank Williams to Merle Haggard and beyond. Commercial country music as we've come to know it starts here.

"COAT OF MANY COLORS," Dolly Parton (RCA Victor, 1971). This sublime meditation on poverty and resilience might be autobiographical, but it's not just Dolly's story. It's the de facto myth of origin for countless other singers. Driven home by a shuffling, neo-Appalachian arrangement, this rumination on the links between self-determination and self-worth vividly colors in the margins of Billie Holiday's immortal line, "God bless the child who's got [her] own."

"CRAZY ," Patsy Cline (Decca, 1961). As gorgeous a single as any ever made, "Crazy" marked the apotheosis of the Nashville Sound -- a meticulous approach to record-making that at its best never sacrificed feeling for craft. If anything, producer Owen Bradley and his "A-Teamers" deepened the torrent of emotion in Willie Nelson's aggrieved lyrics and Cline's voluptuous vocals by building this recording -- its teardrop piano, hushed brushstrokes and throbbing bass line -- with an abundance of care.

"DRIVE," Alan Jackson (Arista, 2002). Nashville's reigning neo-traditionalist poignantly connects the dots between his love of cars and boats and his family. The link travels from his late father, who taught him to drive, to Jackson's own daughters, for whom he's now doing the same thing. They rarely write 'em or sing 'em like this anymore, and this one has a groove wide enough for an 18-wheeler to barrel through.

"HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY," George Jones (Columbia, 1980). Like "Crazy," this is a blockbuster record that, despite its familiarity, perennially catches listeners off-guard. Much of the credit goes to producer Billy Sherrill, whose heaving arrangement unfurls so gradually, and reaches such Wagnerian heights, that you scarcely notice the record is essentially a recitation -- a spoken-word performance by the greatest male country singer ever. It's a testament to the well of emotion Jones commands that he doesn't have to flash his note-bending, octave-swooping prowess to stand our every nerve strand on end.

"HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT," Sammi Smith (Mega, 1970). The mix of assertiveness, honesty and sexual frankness with which Smith conveys her hunger for intimacy on her version of this Kris Kristofferson original was virtually unheard of in country music at the time. Much the same goes for the record's nonpareil, country-soul arrangement, which offers exquisite proof that Nashville could be conversant in current developments in pop, rock and soul instead of always remaining cemented in tradition.

"I CAN'T STOP LOVING YOU," Ray Charles (ABC-Paramount, 1962). Much has rightly been made of Charles's audacious appropriation of gospel lyrics and rhythms to create soul music. Yet maybe even more intrepid, given the pall that segregation cast over the South at the time, was his commitment to playing country music, an idiom identified with racist white southerners. "I Can't Stop Loving You" was the first single from his watershed "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" LP, and it didn't simply update the then-reigning Nashville Sound. Working in a soulful new key, Charles utterly reimagined it with a billowing pop choir, sophisticated jazz orchestration and inexorable rhythms. It wasn't long before the Nashville Sound went countrypolitan, embracing a soul-drenched style that owed as much to the Stax and Muscle Shoals studios as to legendary country producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley.

"I WALK THE LINE," Johnny Cash (Sun, 1956). Cash originally wrote this pledge of fidelity for his first wife, yet over the years the song has taken on much larger significance, symbolizing his outsized struggle to unite the disparate strands of his conflicted self. The song's vow to nurture the ties that bind also echoes the Carter Family's anthemic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Cash eventually married into the Carter fold when he wed June, of course. But long before taking refuge there, he borrowed his trademark boom-chicka-boom from his future mother-in-law's thumb-brush guitar stroke.

"LOST HIGHWAY," Hank Williams (MGM, 1949). This song conveys one of country's quintessential myths -- that of the hopeless sinner resigned to his or her fate. Arriving just two years after he rapturously sang of seeing the light, "Lost Highway" grievously prefigured Williams's own dissipation and death at age 29. That Bob Dylan would be inspired to write a response as transcendent as "Like a Rolling Stone" further testifies to this record's archetypal power.


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