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By Ben Cohen a “legendary master of the left field.” -BRP!

“Unintentionally misunderstood since 1975.” –Anonymous

“A big f@#k you, to the audience.” -B. Pendarvis

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Why I can't say I don't like Country Music!

My introduction to Country came through the two most unlikely vessels, my Jewish Rock ‘n Roll and Motown loving father and my love for comics.  Without the blues and country (folk, bluegrass) we would not have Rock ‘n Roll.  Now Chicago is a home for the blues (and my dad is from there).  Comics also have maintained a close connection with the blues (for common artistic historical paths in American culture) through the testament of Robert Cumb, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes.  I certainly could have circled back through my introduction to noise in Post Modernist Art History class (via John Cage), or through John Zorn via Mike Patton (my biggest musical history vestal).  The obvious introduction would have been seeing who influenced Buddy Holly, one of my first musical memories, let alone the Beatles.  Skipped over was the most likely, my family history in Okalahoma, Texas and Georgia.  There was no mention of country music in these family dynamics, despite being one generation from growing up in Normand.  I would even say that my seven years living in Savannah, did little to inform me, it was a year or so earlier watching Crumb the documentary that opened me up to the Blues and then Country…well sort of.  My dad had exposed me to Johnny Winter (covering Bob Dylan) and Michelle Shocked (one of the over played tapes in commutes across the Bay).  I recognized Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams I as part of the background sound at my Oklahoman grandparents house.

But the big influences that have created my country and blues aesthetics, my foundation is currently in the music of Robert Johnson (my dad tried on this one), Skip James (Dan Clowes’s Ghost World) and Memphis Minnie (some light digging), Johnny Cash (despite their issues with comics creators), Johnny Cash (Walk the Line helped), Hank Williams (Hank III and the Melvin’s lead me here) and Patsy Cline (Natural Born Killers), Billy Holliday (she has been a staple for a long time) and yes Buddy Holly (who has always been there for me).

So why do I still struggle with defending country and blues, with the foundation finally being solid.  Well have you listened to what passes for country these days…what has made Country “popular.”  Rock has its own problems, but Country has it even worse.  Although, my daughter Savannah, loves it…but she is 2, she loves to dance, its accessible, its fun and she is so cute it melts my stone cold hart when we go to the Texas Road House.

So whatever happened to country music “I could love,” is that dream dead.  Heck no.  As with all good underground, fringe, quality music…it aren’t happening in the corporate tower.  There is a quite revolution.  So after Buddy Holly, did anything new come around worth listening to from those earlier influences of blues and country.  Has there been evolution or has it all been poor carbon copies and over produced hacks.

Here are seven to consider:

 Tom Waits is not Country music, but despite a heavy influence in urban and alternative culture, it is the Blues.  Now there are many more that can speak to the man and the music, so I will be brief.  Simply no one quite performs like he does and none of his cotemporaries embodies the Blues more so.  For those two reasons and his broad influence in my lifetime I would be remise in not mentioning him as a highlight and perhaps the most recognizable on this list.  

Michelle Shocked as previously mentioned was one that was on my fathers radar.  I can’t even begin to explain why.  My dad was the authority on cool music growing up until he went through a strange faze.  A combination of tapes became regular circulation in the commute from my Mom’s house to his across the Bay Area.  None were disastrous on their own.  But the combination made you wonder what had happened to the man who preached the Beatles, Neil Young, The Zombies and Motown. We had The Fine Young Cannibals, ZZ Top, Robert Cray and Michelle Shocked.  It was just odd.  Her strait forward Texas country music was balanced by an alternative leaning progressive activism, that worked for these Berkeley ears.  There was a naivety on my part to perceived a paradox, that as I age seems less real.  Her work  
still stands up as accessible, not over produced and honest country music.

House of Freaks are not really a country band, but they are folks music with a strong 80’s alternative foundation with stories that seem strait out of To Kill a Mocking Bird.  Knowing people from Richmond now I can see how this coalesced.  But when I was giving this demo tape along with a demo of Black Sabbaths Eternal Idol and demo by a band called The Name (not the European one…and if anyone knows how to get this let me know) by my step uncle (who I am still pulling for as he faces some tragic health issues this year), it was ironically the closest to my tastes at the time (see 80’s alternative).  When I play this album it brings worlds colliding for me, but it is really just a solid American music album with a great story in each song.

 Dieslhed is the easiest for me to explain.  I am from northern California, they are from Northern California (Eureka, along with Mr. Bungle).  The drummer is from my favorite band (Mr. Bungle…which features my only true obsession…Mike Patton).  So just like John Zorn it was inevitable that I come across it, and make the effort to try it.  The thing is though, partly because I have connections to mountain towns in California, VT and Colorado and partly because of my strong foundation in Blues and Country, this is the perfect country music to me.  The brilliant song writing, the strait forward content, the ironic fun stories (very Northern Californian), the strong percussion, the bare it all guitar and that perfect voice…well I just love it more then any other on this list.

Like Dieslhed, Mike Patton is to blame for Hank III (although if I had been paying closer attention in Savannah I would have made the connection…plus there is the Melvin’s, Helmet ect…)  Basically Hank Williams III is a good as his Dad is bad for country…and his dad knows it.  He channels his grandfather for the first half of his set and then channels Slayer for the second.  There is not much more authentically metal or country out there in the south.

Lucky Stars is purely a Mike Patton find (they were on his label and I saw them open up for Kid 606 and Melvins Fantomas Big Band).  You should have seen how these Southern California’s turned the harts and minds of these San Francisco Hardcore, Metal, Punk, Electronics, Experimental, Noise, Grunge fans…they soothed us into submission with their southern California charm.  No other band out there sounds more Tennessee produced then these LA kids.  You could see them on tour with Hank, Johnny and Patsy, but then the lyrics type their hand.

 Anyone knowledgeable about the history of Punk Rock and hardcore in the 1970’s and 80’s is aware of the strange influence Buddy Holly and Rock ‘a Billy had on it, via John Doe and the band X.  Now you can go back and find songs written and performed by John and Exaine that fit precisely this country model.  But just recently John Doe came out of the shadows accompanied by the Canadian band the Sadies (who come with their own strong Canadian country music roots) and they have produced a polished country music that I can actually tolerate.  In fact, I like it.  I would say the punk rock and the rock ‘a billy street cred gives them the pass, but it maybe my ageing mind that has helped me enjoy them.  I am here merely to mention, this may be another evolutionary step in the right direction.

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