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Country Music 101

Bill Friskics-Warren
Music Journalist
Monday, November 14, 2005 1:00 PM

Music journalist Bill Friskics-Warren will be online Monday, Nov. 14, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Source article, "Country Music 101" and his latest book, "I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence."

Read the article: Country Music 101 (Post, Nov. 13)

His latest book is about spirituality in pop music and is titled "I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence."

A transcript follows.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What is your take on the evolution of country music (even back to when it was calaled country "and western" music)? It seems the western and cowboy themes are much fewer, and much of what is considered country today would have been considered rock and roll back thirty years ago. To what factors do you attribute this evolution?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Sonically and thematically, today's country music reflects the suburbanization--and attendant homoginization--of life in many parts of the United States. Much is made, too often condescendingly, of the proverbially soccer mom and the NASCAR dad making up country's core demographic, and while I don't doubt that's the case, I suspect that the audience for country music throughout the nation is less monolithic than that suggests. It'll certainly be interesting to see how the CMA Awards go down in Manhattan tomorrow night. As for the absence of cowboy-type themes, I wonder if they aren't latent in the personas of singers like Toby Keith (the loudmouth saloon brawler), Alan Jackson (the strong silent type) and Tim McGraw (the good-time buddy). The SUV might have replaced the horse as the ride of choice, but some of the trappings remain.

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Burke, Va.: I am a huge fan of the Dixie Chicks. I discovered them off a movie soundtrack and from there I got into country music. It was so upsetting when radio stopped playing the Chicks. Even now, more than two years later, you rarely hear them on the radio. It seems like country music prides itself on being homogenous in terms of values, beliefs, and politics but that can't really be the case. Certainly, I agree far more with the Chicks' statements than those of Dirks Bentley or Toby Keith. Do you think country music will accept the Chicks and other artists that are outspoken liberals or will they continue to be blacklisted? Won't that hurt country music in the long term, artistically if not by numbers of fans?

Bill Friskics-Warren: I'm with you re: the Chicks, and likewise appreciate their outspokenness and where they're coming from politically. Word has it that Tim McGraw is a democrat, and Merle Haggard has lately spoken out against the war in Iraq. All of which is to say that there are more left-leaning people in the country music industry--especially among record execs and other behind the scenes folks in the business--than most people think. The trouble is, these liberal voices aren't the loudest and their messages tend to be subtler--and thus harder to get across--than those who identify more with the right. A group here called Music Row Democrats has sought to address this perception, and to elevate the level of political discourse within the industry, but I'm not sure how effective they've has been.

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Washington, D.C.: Your column in yesterday's paper covered a wide range of country music, from the 1920s to the 21st century. With your new book, however, you range beyond country and talk about spirituality in everything from rock and soul music to punk and rap. Why this interest in such a broad scope of popular music?"

Bill Friskics-Warren: One of the main things I wanted to accomplish with my new book was to uncover the spirituality that undergirds and informs so much pop music. Whether we're talking about obvious candidates like Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Moby or about the not-so-obvious likes of Madonna, PJ Harvey and Public Enemy, an underlying spiritual restlessness--a hunger for transcendence--can be heard in the records that they make. What other than transcendence is Jimi Hendrix getting at when he shouts, "Scuse me while I kiss the sky," before enleashing a volcanic burst of guitar noise in "Purple Haze?" In order to demonstrate just how pervasive this hunger for something deeper and more abiding than the everyday is in pop music, it was crucial for me to show how it could be heard in rock, rap, disco, country and electronic music, among other genres--that is, across the board. This isn't to say that all pop music conveys a hunger for transcendence, or to deny that some of it serves banal, venal or oppressive ends. It is, however, to stress that spirituality runs through more pop music than most people suspect.

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Baltimore, Md.: The greatest country singers, like Johnny Cash, transcended categorical boundaries. But Nashville is uncomfortable with a band fitting into several record bins. How is it that bands like the Kentucky Headhunters and Night Train strike a chord with the public (pardon the pun), but struggle to get airplay and mass recognition? Big Boss Man and 8th Grade Bride are classics in the genre!

Bill Friskics-Warren: Today's niche marketing certainly has narrowed the way that country records now sound. I think it's refreshing, though, that acts like Big & Rich and Cowboy Troy--the entire MuzikMafia, really--are embracing sounds from all over the musical spectrum. I think you hear this musical reach in Brooks & Dunn's music, too. Sara Evans' latest album has a sleek, electronic sheen that a colleague of mine likened to Cupid & Psyche 85, an album by 80s synth-n-beat band Scritti Politti. It's a pretty thrilling record.

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Tuscumbia, Mo.: One aspect of country music which has had some influence on popular music have been innovative instrumentalists such as Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs and Floyd Cramer. For example, Cramer's piano was background for many country as well as popular recording artists in the sixties and seventies and his "bending" of melody notes has been said to have been an important contribution to the "Nashville Sound." Atkins perfected the "walking base" style of guitar playing and is recognized as having one of the most distinctive sounds of any American guitar player. Scruggs innovated the three digit method of playing the five string banjo, a style copied thereafter by almost all banjo players in folk and country music. Have you written about your favorite country instrumental artists?

Bill Friskics-Warren: In Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles, my co-author David Cantwell and I went to great lengths to discuss not just the contributions instrumentalists have made to the music, but the innovations that producers, arrangers and others have made as well. One of the main themes of our book was that great recordings are by nature collaborative--that the person's name on the label of this or that hit single doesn't begin to tell the story of what went into making the record. Thus we wrote entries that focused on how producer Billy Sherrill introduced aspects of soul and gospel music into the countrypolitan sound, or on how Hank Garland's love of jazz seeped into his playing on great records by Red Foley, among so many others. We also included entries that centered on the harmonies of the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr singers, as well as on pickers ranging from Bud Isaacs and Bob Dunn to Pete Drake and Pig Robbins.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Bill -- You point out correctly that country is not just one sound, but has many varieties. Currently though, many "country acts," Travis Tritt, Gretchen Wilson, etc., are much more influenced by rock than country. Take away the boots, accent and hat, and it's more like older mainstream rock. Agree or Disagree?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Oh, absolutely. Rock music is a huge influence on today's mainstream country acts and their producers. Just look at the tributes to the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top that Music Row has produced in recent years. And you can spot influences ranging from Springsteen to the Stones to Delaney & Bonnie all over an album like Brooks & Dunn's Red Dirt Road. But there are also nods to Southern soul and black gospel music on that album, as well as on records by, say, Big & Rich and Trisha Yearwood. Country music has always been highly referential, but these days, it seems that these sorts of nods are everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if they're a substitute for originality or if they function creatively the way that samples do in pop and hip hop.

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TX stuck in DC: Not one mention of Willie Nelson, outside of penning "Crazy"? How about Hello Walls, Bloody Mary Morning, Whiskey River, Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time ... and so, so, so much more ...

Bill Friskics-Warren: Point taken. Willie's one of the greatest, and not just as a singing and record maker, but as a writer, an arranger and a guitar player. You just can't cover it all with such a short list. I also hated not mentioning Lefty Frizell, Bill Monroe, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty, to name just a few. And this to say nothing of pop acts like Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley who loved country music and had blockbuster country hits--in fact, who had hits with country material that charted simulanteously on the pop, R&B and country reports.

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Stephenville, Tex.: As a former union musician (currently a graduate student), I have heard from numerous experts who keep their thumbs on the pulse of the music business that the reason the slightly more mature country and western artists do not get the air time that the youger ones do is because the music industry targets 'young females, between roughly 13 and 17' who tend to spend more money that any other groups.

Is this so, and if it in fact is, what is to become of the traditional country and westnern sound of Western swing, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, etc.?

Your comments and discussion are most welcome.

Bill Friskics-Warren: I'm not sure I have an answer for this so much as an observation--namely, that it's been interesting to watch so-called heritage artists like Willie and Cash being embraced by new generations of rock fans. Leading the way was Cash and his series of American Recordings with producer Rick Rubin, which eventually ended up being released on the alternative-leaning Lost Highway label. Now Willie records for Lost Highway and Loretta Lynn of course made her last record with Jack White of the White Stripes--and for Interscope, the label for which Eminem records. I'm not sure I'm prepared to herald these old-timers as the "new alternative," but they certainly have that sort of cachet with younger pop and rock audiences.

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Winchester, Va. (Home of Patsy Cline): Hello. I'm 55, and I've been listening to country music since Tex Ritter and Johnny Horton were stars, Grandpa Jones was asking about the Hound Dog in the window, and Tammy was giving marital spelling lessions. Flatt and Scruggs were the first live music I ever saw (in the early 60's at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh) Today I love Buddy Miller, Chris Scruggs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Laura Cantrell, and Elizabeth Cook, and on and on. I know there's tons of great stuff cooking all over the country. Radio just doesn't let us hear most of it.

So far as the lists in Sunday's Post, I am compelled to ask what Honky Tonk Woman has to do with any of that? I don't recall it ever being cast in a country light. And I don't think it is country in any way that I can see? It's great, but country?

And I have to ask, what do you think of Greg Garing? I know he is back in Nashville after taking a shot at NYC. I saw him a bunch of times playing for tips on Lower Broadway five years ago, both solo, and with Chris Scruggs playing upright, and Kenny Vaughn playing guitar. It was always transcendental. Will he ever get a break? Keep up the good work.

Bill Friskics-Warren: I figured someone might flag "Honky Tonk Women" as being a poor choice for a list of great "country" records. And it might be a stretch, but it sounds like an homage to country music--and, of course, to soul and R&B--to me. Jagger's fake drawl has an almost yodeling quality in spots, and Richards' guitar lines have a snap-and-twang that suggests he'd been listening to pickers like Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Then there are the song's honky-tonk themes--the drinking and the sexuality. The version of the song that the Stones include on Let It Bleed kinda tips their hands, particularly with the fiddle player (Byron Berline?) slicing and dicing all over the place.

As for Greg Garing, your guess is as good as mine. He's an electrifying performer and some of those gigs he played on Lower Broad in Nashville in the early-to-mid 90s indeed were transcendent. He's an awfully mercurial fellow, though--and he used to have a reputation for volatility--so maybe that's contributed to his perennially marginalized status. I sure would like to hear him make another record.

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Washington, D.C.: Forget all the Willie Nelson duet partners over the years, forget all the George Jones duet partners over the years, has anyone come close to the number of partners Emmylou Harris has recorded with or sang back-up with, or with the spectrum and diversity of talent? She's recorded with everyone from Gram Parsons to Neil Young, Steve Goodman, (what's better than the Goodman/Harris "Fourteen Days"?), John Denver, Dave Matthews, Roy Orbison, Geroge Jones, Willie Nelson, the Judds, Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Scaggs, Rodney Crowell, James Burton, Duane Eddy, Mark O'Connor, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and Kate McGarrigle, (forgetting with Parton and Ronstadt) just for starters.

In the same vein as Vince Gill and Glenn Campbell (before Gill) being among the most recognized back-up guitarists over the years, has Emmylou Harris been the best duet partner/back-up singer in country music, or simply the most underrated performer over the years?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Tough call. Harris is a staggeringly gifted singer, whether she's singing back-up or out front, and she has as good an ear for material as anyone. I tend to like her harmony work best, and I don't think it's disparaging to say so. The art of collaboration--in this case, of singing harmony--is underrated, and no less visionary than singing lead. Harris obviously hears things that others don't, and the empathetic way that she responds to what she hears galvanizes the collaborations in which she participates. Her sometime band leader Buddy Miller is another case in point--an underrated artist who adds definitive touches at most every turn.

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Bedford, Tex.: I miss the Dixie Chicks! Do you think they will be able to make a comeback?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Whether it'll be on country or not, I suspect the Chicks will be back. And it wouldn't be the worst thing if they made a pop or rock record. Like some of the best country music, their style has always been pretty elastic and I think their fanbase will embrace them however they're marketed.

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Washington, D.C.: Bill,Great list. But why no Gretchen Wilson?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Yeah, that was a tough choice. I could easily have put one of her singles on the Revolution Girl Style list, or even in place of the sole 21st century choice ("Alan Jackson's "Drive") in my actual Top 10. Wilson's absence from my list isn't due to any lack of fondness for her music on my part. Just not enough room.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you have an opinion about why female country artists as a group are outnumbered by male artists when it comes to popularity? For example, it's been five years since a female was even nominated for CMA's Entertainer of the Year.

Bill Friskics-Warren: Women in country have been marginalized from the beginning, and while a case can be made for how things are better today, guys are still in charge on Music Row and I suspect that has a lot to do with why, sigh, male singers perennially dominate the CMAs' Entertainer of the Year nominees.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Long-time Country hater here. A good friend of mine was telling me that the country on the radio isn't even country music. That it is just bubblegum pop with a country twist. As a long time fan of hip- hop I feel the same way about my favorite music genre. Has anyone examined the similarities of the bastardization of these two types of music?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Great observation. I don't know if anyone's connected those dots in print yet, but it certainly would make for an illuminating essay. I wonder if, say, the same holds true for rock--and whether the dynamic is more a matter of business than of aesthetics, not that the two can be separated completely in any conversation about commercial music.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the new Johnny Cash movie and Jaoquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon doing their own singing.

Bill Friskics-Warren: I think it's fine for the actors to do their own singing. The question, in the end I think, is how well it comes across.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Bill. Most interesting is that the songs you listed had a "soul" to them, an almost spiritual energy conveyed by both the writers and the singers, that very few songs achieve. To me, the individuality/creativity that underlies such artistry seems at odds with the the Nashville focus on churning out derivative and formulaic "product" performed by disposable artists, and further undermined by the current emphasis on crossover potential. What's left, it seems, are catchy but forgetable country-pop records with very short shelf lives, unlikely to stand the test of time. Do you feel that the great artists that you mentioned would be "allowed" to succeed in the current Nashville climate? Thanks.

Bill Friskics-Warren: A lot of records that have been made on Music Row since the 90s boom are product, but any number of them have had that soulful quality of which you alluded. I think that artists like Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood have perennially made records that qualify, and the likes of Brooks & Dunn (especially with Red Dirt Road) and Gretchen Wilson are lately making strong showings as well. There's also a unique kind of soulfulness--an expansive spirituality combined with a sense of fun--in what Big & Rich are doing that I suspect is a lot less superficial than they're letting on.

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Bethesda, Md.: There seems to be a lot of ferment in country music -- I've seen a few profiles of nominally 'country' musicians (Gillian Welch, Lyell Lovett, and (I think) Lucinda Williams) in the New Yorker magazine, of all places. There are 'unclassifiables' like Jolie Holland -- is any of this getting back to the 'standard' country scene?

Bill Friskics-Warren: I don't detect any kind of movement here, but a recent case of the alternative influence of which you speak seeping into the country mainstream is the songwriting of Lori McKenna, a former unknown who has key cuts--and great ones, too--on the latest albums by Faith Hill and Sara Evans. McKenna is a trenchant writer in the mold of Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier and she made enough of an impression on Warner Bros. Nashville that they let her record an alt-leaning solo album of her own. Elsewehre, Melonie Howard, the widow of the late Harlan Howard, has been doing great things to get gifted, left-of-center songwriters like McKenna and Gautheir heard on Music Row. And folks like Buddy and Julie Miller (still Nashville's best-kept secret) have consistently had their songs cut by mainstream country acts.

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Fairfax, Va.: Would you disagree that mainstream country music is at a nadir now -- and was at a peak in the mid-90s? I'm 46 and this is the first time I've taken country off my radio presets ...

Bill Friskics-Warren: I think contemporary country music's doing all right at the moment. The sorts of things that the MuzikMafia are doing might not be to everybody's tastes, but they success they've had with Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich suggests that a grassroots, artist-led revival still can take place in commercial country music (as opposed to a top-down "revival" imposed by record execs). I also like the range of musical influences that can be heard in acts like Big & Rich--everything from rock and soul to country and hip hop. Country music has often been more durable and elastic than its critics maintain, and right now I think we're seeing a healthy openness and sense of possibility.

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Alexandria, Va.: Please explain why you failed to include in your list of classic albums Kris Kistofferson's "Silver Tongue Devil and I" (Me And Bobby McGee, For The Good Times, Help Me Make It Through The Night, Sunday Morning Comin'Down, Loving Her Was Easier). Those songs changed country music as much if not more than any you chose to include.

Bill Friskics-Warren: Kristofferson's songs indeed changed the face of country music--and pop and rock, in important respects, as well. But mine was a list of great country singles, as opposed to songs, which require interpretation and collaboration from producers, arrangers, musicians and singers to become great records. Willie Nelson's "Crazy" is a great song, but it's Patsy Cline singing it, with Owen Bradley producing, the A-Team playing the music and the Jordanaires "bop-bop-bopping" in the background that made it immortal.

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Washington, D.C.: What is your take on the Garth Brooks/Wal-Mart deal? I can see where his record label wouldn't let him do the deal while still with them. But I have to admit, Garth is my all-time favorite country singer and I am excited to be getting a CD with never-heard recordings (although a bit miffed that I have to buy the box since I already have the other CDs).

Bill Friskics-Warren: Garth was a marketing major in college and has always had schemes for selling his records. He's a force unto himself.

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Atlanta, Ga.: As a black person, I can't help but notice the insular nature of country music. That itself is why more people are willing to experience. Not even considering race, it appears if one is not politically conservative and from "authentically" country places (Nashville, Kentucky, etc.) one is not welcome. It appears in the most irrelavant places, like when a male country performers is attached to a woman who is not a country performer. I see much hang-wringing as to how much "influence" she will have on him? Will she bring "her kind of" people around him. Doesn't sound welcoming and people react to that by staying away.

Bill Friskics-Warren: Bound up with the racist legacy of the South, commercial country music's legacy has been one of insularity and there's no denying or excusing it. Remarkably--and to their enormous credit--soul singers like Al Green and Solomon Burke, among countless others, talk about how much country music meant to them when they were coming up, and they've sung so much country. Ray Charles, too, as the scenes in the movie Ray portrayed. And in rap, you hear country elements on the records of David Banner and Nappy Roots. Country has always need to be more inclusive--and more forthcoming about the influence that soul, R&B, gospel music and, lately, hip-hop production techniques have had on the music.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Thanks for being online today. I moved to D.C. from Michigan where at any given time I could get at least five different country stations. Here, we just get one. I'm disappointed by the lack of country music fans in the area. Are there some areas of the country where country music just doesn't have an audience? Growing up, I thought everyone listened to country music, now I feel like I'm the only one!

Bill Friskics-Warren: My understanding is that New York City doesn't have a single commercial station that plays country music. In fact, folks at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce said that they were planning to establish a temporary country station in New York for CMA's this week.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Are you familiar with:"I'VE GOT TEARS IN MY EARS,FROM LAYING ON MY BACK CRYIN' OVER YOU"?

How about the 500 corniest country tunes?

Bill Friskics-Warren: Humor in country music rarely gets its due, especially for being such a big part of the vaudeville-inspired legacy of the music. They still have comedians on the Opry, and there is the occasional radio novelty with yucks, but the way that outside observers have equated country music (and by extension, Nashville) with Hee Haw has caused the industry to shy away from the funny stuff, which is a shame.

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Re: Silver Spring Country-Hater: I think there's a lot to be said about the thematic similarities between country (particularly outlaw) and hip-hop. If you listen to Steve Goodman's "you never even called me by my name" -- and the requisite list of Momma, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin' drunk -- and then think of the similar recurring themes of rap -- both genres try to evoke a similar ethos in their respective communities/cultures. Just replace the steel guitar with a sample beat and the location from rural to urban, and you have the same song.

Bill Friskics-Warren: Absolutely. Great point. The Outlaw and gangsta personas are in many ways similar.

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Downey: My friend Phil Alvin of the Blasters contends that "country" music was an artificially created genre of music ID'ed as such to denote "white" singers. Before this took place, many black singers, some dating back to the "Minstrel" era, were performing in styles that could only be considered "country". What do you know of the segregated roots of "country" music? THANKS

Bill Friskics-Warren: Untangling this one is better suited to a book than a blurb, and I'm not sure that I have the sociological or historical chops to do it. But before the advent of the phonograph record--and with it, the creation of "hillbilly" and "race" categories for marketing records--what we call country music today tended to be a vernacular shared by poor southerners, both black and white.

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Bill Friskics-Warren: Thanks to all of you for your questions. I hope I answered at least some of them to your satisfaction.

Meanwhile, we had only one question about my new book, but I hope you'll seek it out. It's called I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence and it was published last month by Continuum Books. The books looks as spirituality as expressed in the music of artists ranging from Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Madonna and Moby to Johnny Cash, Curtis Mayfield, U2 and Public Enemy. Through discussions of the work of these people, and 20 or so others, I seek to show how central spirituality--an urge for something deeper and more abiding in life--is to the history of popular music.

Thanks again,

Bill

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