On Country Music

November 15, 2008

I’m going to take credit for baiting Helen into that battle over bluegrass-authenticity, even if I don’t deserve it. Just a couple of further notes, not necessarily in response to her:

One:Virtuosity/production do not mean the album is “fake.” Of all the objections I’ve encountered to Newgrass Revival, that they’re “too slick” seems to be the weakest—especially when you’re talking about authenticity.

Two: I think Krauss has a pretty voice; I have a thing for pretty voices; ergo, Helen is being a touch too hard on her. I still stand by my non-position on the whole debate over her.

Three: I’m in agreement with her about the self-consciousness of country music. One of my favorite lines (“Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looked like Elvis”) has no meaning without its meta-ness (I mean, it’s a drunk torch song that doesn’t take itself seriously because it realizes exactly what it is)—and, by the final verse of the song, George Jones is doing an Elvis impression for the second half of that line. Elvis is a good example here because of the mythology about him: Drive-By Truckers’ “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” is (like much of their music) very referential to music history, but to really get it, you have to have a familiarity with Elvis’ reputation as a mama’s boy and the story that it was her death that truly began his long, self-destructive cycle. See also, Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” And, speaking of Welch, one of the most powerful images (for me, at least) from her lengthy, “I Dream A Highway” comes when she says:

“John, he’s kicking out the footlights
The Grand Ole Opry’s got a brand new band
Lord, let me die with a hammer in my hand
I dream a highway back to you.”

At which point we have Johnny Cash’s collapse onstage at the Opry, then how the sound of Country music left him behind, which transforms him into a kind of John Henry, which, when you go back to the first line, displays him kicking out the footlights because he’s stoned and at breaking point AND because he’s fighting back against his perceived rejection by Nashville.

And, to bring it back to Emmylou Harris: when one listens for notes of Gram Parsons in her work—it’s not always there, but shows up from time to time, often in just a vague, universalized way, I’d argue—it becomes much more powerful.

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