May 23, 2016
By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
My title is a quote by the marvelous country singer Loretta Lynn (who, at 83, is still recording). The complete quote is “We don’t have real country music anymore. Today, it’s more or less a pop sound. I think somebody will probably save it. They’re going to have to, because you can’t lose something that we’ve had for a hundred years.” When asked if there were any current country artists that she liked, she replied “Miranda Lambert is good. But the last record she had out “Little Red Wagon.” I didn’t think that was good. It wasn’t real country. I hope that they don’t try to put her down the ‘middle of the road’ and start recording pop with her.” The quotes are from an interview that Time magazine held with Lynn in March of this year.
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It has been over 65 years since a console radio came into our little house on the back roads of southern Maine bringing the sounds of local Country (called “Hillbilly” back then) artists such as “The Lone Pine Mountaineer” and Ken Mckenzie into our sheltered world. National artists such a Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams also came to my young attention. Although I “graduated” to jazz, I retained a fondness for what I call hard-core “honest” Country music, which I cannot define but know when I hear it. Some of the elements are, well, “honesty” meaning fundamentals and sincerity. Honest Country has not been over-produced, “watered down” (homogenized or diluted) to appeal to the masses. The more honest Country singers do not – and many cannot – “go pop,” for they embrace the authenticity, the grass-roots of Country. Such singers are grateful to find songs that are palpable rather than plastic. Pop music is short for “popular music” which, of course, has to do with the market-place and the cash register. Thus, pop exists only to amen its audiences existing expectations – that is to pander. (Honoring the roots of Country is not on the pop artists’ agenda.).
Country music is not for everybody. Yes, much of it is three-chord songs about drinking, cheating and where love dances endlessly with loss, laughter and despair. But not all. Many country songs are more complex and even sometimes difficult to sing. The often overlooked honey-at-dusk voiced Sammi Smith recorded a few such songs as did the late Merle Haggard.
After reading Loretta Lynn’s above quote (which I agree with) I thought I’d provide links to a few songs that I consider honest, maybe vintage Country, which has many divisions (“rockabilly,” “western swing,” “honky-tonk,” bluegrass,” etc.) But the below selections have nothing to do with “essential,” “typical” and similar attributes. These performances delight me and I wish that such recordings would return to the Country charts.
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1) As writer Will Friedwald noted, “Like Sinatra, Hank Williams knew everything that there was to know about bringing out the inner meaning of a song – using the right inflections to get everything that can be gotten out of a lyric” and, of course, those lyrics were usually his own (he was termed “The Hillbilly Poet”). Here is Hank (the “first” Hank Williams of three) with a song that is almost – or at least used to be – a country anthem, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – (from 1949)
2) One of Williams most talented (artistically and commercially) disciples was George Jones. Here he is with what some Country fans consider the greatest country song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of the saddest but loveliest story-songs. (from 1980) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubKUP8c0FHE
3) I am a major fan of Sammi Smith and often thought that her smoky voice would have worked well in a jazz context. Speaking of Merle Haggard, as I was above, he said more than once that her version of his “Today I Started Loving You Again” was his favorite. (from 1970) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PNXHcVHO7k
4) Merle Haggard had one of the finest voices in Country music, his honeyed tone and quicksilver phrasing would have worked well in jazz. In fact he was a fan and even let his band, the swinging Strangers, “take a chorus” something not done in Country music. Here he is singing his own classic composition “Swinging Doors.” (from 1967)
5) From 1950 on Lefty Frizzell had an astounding run of Country hits. He was a favorite of and influence on Haggard. I’ve always liked his “Always Late (With Your Kisses) which is from 1951. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDNp305l49o
6) Well, since Loretta Lynn mentioned Miranda Lambert as a current favorite. I’ve selected one of her more straight-down-the-middle Country recordings. It is her version of a well-written song I associate with Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, “Storms Never Last (Do They Baby)” (live in 2015)