Friday 5th August
It used to be called Country and Western when I was a boy, the Western bit I suppose because of the cowboy hats which every country singer seemed compelled to wear. The first ‘country’ music I remember must have been novelty songs like ‘The Runaway Train’ or from musicals like ‘Calamity Jane’ or ‘Seven Brides’. But Hank Williams songs were sometimes played on the radio, his plaintive lonesome voice yearning out to us, and Elvis was sometimes country too; in fact the roots of Rock’n’Roll are deeply embedded both in the Blues music of the Deep South and in traditional country music. This is now called ‘Bluegrass’ and is a separate genre, but grew out of the early settlers who often came from Ireland or Scotland and brought their fiddles and accordions with them.
But the first real country music I loved was Johnny Cash, with his deep voice and distinctive guitar, and he sung songs about ‘Folsom Prison’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’. I can remember seeing him on TV live from San Quentin prison, almost an outlaw himself. There was also Roy Orbison singing his lonely songs and the big hit ‘Pretty Woman’. But during the Sixties, as The Beatles and The Stones revolutionised popular music, Country became distinctly old-fashioned, music reserved for old people who liked Don Williams and George Hamilton and Jim Reeves. There were exceptions like Dolly Parton and Glen Campbell who broke through into the charts occasionally but for my generation ‘Country and Western’ was totally uncool.
Then the Byrds released ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ which was a new style of country and folk mixed with lots of jangling guitars but still those lovely sentimental harmonies and great romantic melodies. The Eagles followed and this new style ‘Country’ music suddenly became cool again, they even released an album called ‘Desperados’. Around ’76 I bought another great country album “White Mansions” sung by several rising country artists like Emmy Lou Harris. Country is huge again, and is now called Americana with stars like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett digging deep into ‘roots’ American music. A few years ago the old and great Johnny Cash started a series of ‘American Recordings’, very basic, just his voice and guitar and suddenly he was the coolest ‘old’ man on the planet.
Country music has this huge emotional pull; you almost involuntarily start to smile as you hear those sweet and often sentimental melodies again. Just like ‘Rock and Roll’ and Soul it will probably never die.