I’m not much of a fan of country music. I think that the reasons for this are pretty much the same as the reasons that I don’t like a lot of modern pop music – it’s usually over-produced, soulless and interchangeable with any one of a thousand other songs. That said, there are some country artists and albums that I really love, simply because they stand apart from the crowd. Simply put, I love good music, whether it’s rap, country, Norwegian death metal, or calypso. If you’re like me, here are a few country records that you might find to be worth your valuable time.
Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball is considered by many to be a classic of modern alternative country, and if you’re looking for someone who disagrees with that idea, keep right on looking. Simply put, I cannot praise this record highly enough. Every aspect, from Harris’ world-worn vocals to Daniel Lanois’ emotive guitar and Larry Mullen’s steady and melodic drumming, comes together for this masterwork, ostensibly about life in southern America, but relatable for anyone who’s got anything in their past that they regret. Lanois has also crafted some amazing country-flavored soundscapes for films like Sling Blade, along with some of his own work, but this was a high point in the careers of almost everyone involved in the project.
Pretty much any record from Johnny Cash’s looooong and extensive catalog could have made an appearance on this list – the man was a real American hero who knew instinctively how to tell a story and, just as importantly, how to sing it. My choice for this list, though, is one of his final albums, number three in the man in black’s American series, Solitary Man. The thing about this album that makes it stand out even among the luminous discography of Mr. Cash is the sense it evokes of a life lived well. One of the things that defines such a life is the mistakes – how else can we learn if we never ask, after all, and making mistakes is almost always the result of asking questions, pushing boundaries, wondering “what if”. Solitary Man is the sound of a man who spent a lifetime asking those questions and, in looking back, is ready to share some of that wisdom with the rest of us. There are very few Johnny Cash originals on this record – almost every song is a cover – but the story is told through his track selection as much as it is in the lyrics. It’s in the sigh that was breathed out just seconds after the recorded shut off. It’s in the way Cash’s voice communicates more truly than any word ever could.
Reading the above, there are some commonalities between each of the albums I selected. The worn quality of both singers’ voices; the sense of Americana; and the fact that both records consist of covers almost exclusively. I guess that from that, we can extrapolate that “country music”, at least when it’s done right, is less about content than it is about delivery, and now that I think about it, that’s true of art across the spectrum, in whatever medium you’re looking at. It’s not so much what you say – it’s how you say it.