Tonight begins the third season of “Nashville” – or, as it’s known in our house, the Grand Ole Soap Opry. The show, about the incestuous business of country music, is a guilty pleasure, to be sure. What’s most intriguing about it is how many original songs are created for each episode, and how the villains are given the super sappy and irritatingly quasi-pop tunes that comment on their characters, while the pretty ballads and rock-the-house numbers are assigned to our heroines and heroes. Which begs the question: if it’s so easy to write a good country song on demand, why are there so many bad ones?
The resumption of "Nashville" coincides with the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Which got this New York Jew thinking a lot about a music for which I have a general disdain.
Like many New York Jews, I’m an atheist. The essence of talmudic scholarship is interpretation and debate, which, ironically, is anathema to dogmatic precepts, religious or otherwise. That might explain my own antipathy toward country music as a genre, one historically held under a kind of totalitarian rule. Insufficient overt adherence to God, sequins, shit-kicker boots and "the flag" could quickly leave you out in the country cold.
Or maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember Buck Owens, the co-host of "Hee Haw" (a bumpkin version of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In") crooning “I Wouldn’t Live In New York City” with idiotic lyrics like “Sodom and Gomorrah were tame to what I found.” That was enough to put me off anything remotely twangy. I mean, look at the punim on this guy. Did you ever?
And so my religious belief that country music sucks was indoctrinated early on. And I held that position for a long time. Or at least I thought I did. But watching Connie Britton belt out one listenable melody after another week after week has an intoxicating effect and I found myself re-examining my heart, and my own record collection, where I found enough examples of country - sorta, kinda – that I could listen to, enjoy and recommend to anyone seeking such a recommendation from a critic as uniquely unqualified as me. So with all the arrogance that a New York Jewish atheist can muster I reckoned well, why heck, that sure ain’t gonna stop me.
Here then, in no particular order nor possessing any particular logic, is my highly subjective and entirely unorthodox guide to country music. Some of these selections are obvious - and so are the omissions: Kinky Friedman, anyone? - while others have only a faint resemblance to country music at all. Note that preening nationalism, religious piety, and pretty much anything you might hear during a Chevy pickup commercial you will not find here.
One final thought: there are those who actually care about country music, and might quibble over these artists, albums or songs. After all, few of the “great” names – Williams, Jennings, Wynette – are here. And to them I repeat the wisdom of Bob Newhart who said “I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down'.”
WILLIE NELSON, "Blue Skies"
This is just Willie being Willie, willing to go wherever the weather suits his clothes - musically speaking. In this lovely rendition, he shows us that nature is not the sole province of country songwriters. This is Irving Berlin. He’s the Jew who also wrote "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade". Go figure.
THE DIXIE CHICKS, Taking The Long Way
That sound you hear is the dust settling on one of the most unsettling eras of our time: the Bush one. Taking The Long Way is a brilliant, defiant, heartfelt strike at the heart of parochial America. They surely paid the price, and that's our loss. Sadly, this record is as relevant as ever. Repeated listenings of "Not Ready To Make Nice" never fail to produce chills, both for their courage and the necessity of it.
THE BEATLES, "Act Naturally"
Originally recorded by the aforementioned Buck Owens, this might as well have been Jethro Bodine’s theme song. Ringo, of course, was the Jewish Beatle. (Jewish, in the same way, according to Lenny Bruce, that Count Basie is Jewish.) I could have balanced this with one of the Stones’ many country songs, but hearing Jagger get all twangy just makes me giggle. (Wince, giggle…same diff.) And “Wild Horses” though evocative country-western imagery, doesn’t qualify, and don’t get me started.
All them sparkles, all that hair, that ain’t her. And she ain’t no man’s long suffrin’ woman, neither. But she sings some of the most beautiful melodies written in modern times and with that voice she can sing just about anything she wants to...and often does. Even country. Extra points for her Tony Bennett period.
DON BYRON, Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz
A black virtuoso's tribute album to the Yiddish Spike Jones, including a 75 year old mockery ("Haim Afen Range") of a 150 year old country classic ("Home on the Range"). This is what we talk about when we talk about the great melting pot.
BONNIE RAITT, "I Can’t Make You Love Me"
While just about anything Bonnie Raitt does is worth listening to, this New American Standard could serve as the anthem for the million broken hearts on Broadway. Or JDate.
NAT KING COLE & STUBBY KAYE, "The Ballad of Cat Ballou"
Country by way of Tin Pan Alley. Must be seen in context. The entire movie. Including Lee Marvin's Oscar-winning performance. Shalom Aleichem, Jackson!
More like a neurotic New Yorker than country singer. Sample lyric, from “Here I Am” says it all:
"Given that true intellectual and emotional compatibility
Are at the very least difficult
If not impossible to come by
We could always opt for the more temporal gratification
Of sheer physical attraction
That wouldn’t make you a shallow person
That’s Borscht Belt stand-up at its finest, folks.
TOM WAITS & CRYSTAL GAYLE, "Old Boyfriends"
From the Waits-composed Academy Award-nominated soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s visionary and under-appreciated “One From The Heart.” I believe this is what the great ladies of country, like Gayle's sister Loretta Lynn, were shooting for.
He was nobody’s good ol’ boy and he didn’t need no freakin’ cowboy hat to prove it. Know how many times he wore a hat? Once. Look it up. Cash didn’t have to walk the line for anybody’s approval. And despite a shitload of classic albums, his final work on the American Recordings albums produced by Rick Rubin put him in a genre all his own. "The Making of 'American Recordings'" tracks his break with the "cookie cutter formula of country music." But in the third installment, American III, his version of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" - for which he won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance - is a revelation.
I saw him play in some long-forgotten dive on the Lower East Side just before he took his life 20 years ago next month. Never heard of him? You're not alone. Cruisin’ Deuces, featuring a killer version of "Harlem Nocturn" is a good place to begin.
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS, "Hit 'Em Up Style"
The first black string band to play the Opry, they move country forward by playing neo-old timey tunes untethered to the trappings of what passes for country dogma. "Hit 'Em Up Style"? Well, that's one way to stand by your man. Or not.
BILL FRISELL, Nashville
The eclectic guitarist was a member of John Zorn’s Naked City, for chrissake. Some pretty country-inspired moments on Have A Little Faith, too. Don't imagine they appreciate "Will Jesus Wash The Bloodstains From Your Hands" down in Music City USA.
Following the shocking cliffhangers at the conclusion of its first season, Season Two ended in relative serenity. We can only hope it was a big ol' set up. Though I'm telling you now, even though Rayna and Deacon look good and make beautiful music together, if they reconcile, I'm gone.