From The Vault: Country Music Confessionals

Next year marks my 10th anniversary with what has become a full blown love affair with twang music. It started as a crush, I swear. I’m currently working on a long form piece about the albums that came out in 2002 that sent me down the wayward path towards three chords and the truth, but in the meantime, here is something I first published as a response to the Kasey Chambers album ‘Barricades and Brickwalls’ when I was editing Sydney University’s student paper Honi Soit. I later re-worked it into this format (as in, I edited out the album review and wrote strictly memoir) for the lovely gals at Frankie magazine.

Obviously I’ve come a long way since the article was first published, in terms of what I’m listening to and loving and other things as well. Writing this from the United States (where I am hastily typing in a pink cashmere sweater and my underwear) it should be noted that the music that I love would only really be described as Americana here (check it, it’s in the dictionary) though in Australia we still have so far to come in terms of creating a definitive definition and so I have kept the ‘country’ in. Happy reading.

COUNTRY MUSIC CONFESSIONAL:

Flannel shirts, failed romance, heartache, heartbreak and sad, sad songs. I might live to regret putting this in print, but I have a confession to make… I like country music.

I know it isn’t fashionable. Country is just about the daggiest style of music an otherwise self-respecting young woman could have chosen to embrace. It’s tragic – like being a 24 year-old collector of Tupperware or VIP customer at Copperart. It’s the soundtrack of choice for dingy American diners and dimly lit highway truck stops. It doesn’t have the brazen rebelliousness of punk, or the art school precociousness of indie rock or the forthright sexuality of pop. The genre is defined by the nasal twang of the singer and slow walking swagger of the band. It’s country music – it’s about loneliness, loss, and line dancing. And I like it.

My music tastes have not always been this way. I have not always been a fan. I used to be one of those cynical cool kids who thought that country music, littered with hideously sequined Tammy Wynette clones and silver bearded Kenny Rogers types, was not for me. Sure I liked the bedazzlar, stone-wash denim and spiral perms as much as any child of the eighties, but I was never going to listen to Dolly Parton. No amount of Billy Ray Cyrus mulletude could make me trade ballet for boot scooting. For me, country music was always considered tacky and trashy. Even my parents – whose tastes included a passion for Australiana decor and home-made Jenny Kee knitwear – had the good sense to be fans of other musical genres.

As a kid, I spent most my childhood living in small rural areas, so most people make the assumption that it must have been the seventeen years I spent in towns without traffic lights that secured a love for country music. This is not the case. In my formative years I was a full-fledged pop fan with the Kylie Minogue cassingles and the ra-ra skirt to prove it. Growing up, the only hints of the country enthusiast within was a fairly well rehearsed cover version of the Alannah Myles song “Black Velvet” and a one time yodeling gig in my primary school eisteddfod where, armed with a hot head of freshly crimped hair and some seriously disturbing white patent leather cowboy boots, my attention seeking soul got the better of my good taste. Now, these are the embarrassing details of decidedly naff childhood, but they could belong to any performative ten-year old growing up in the early nineties.

No, this love for country music is something relatively new – something that didn’t hit me until my early twenties, when I started listening to the moderately successful new generation of artists now widely referred to under the sub-genre of “alternative country”. In the alt-country world performers like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams wooed their audiences with harrowing harmonicas and harmonies and tales of eternal heartbreak. They labelled themselves “country” but were a dark contrast to the more popular country stars like Shania Twain or Keith Urban. Archetypal alt-country bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown represented a seedier side to country – less spray tanned, less gaudy, more Neil Young than Nashville factory line.

And so I became a fan. And the more I listened to alt-country, the more I grew to accept other types of country. And the more I came to accept country music as a whole genre, the more I realised I had crossed a neon lit, barn dancing, gin swilling point of no return, signified by a proposed road trip to the Tamworth music festival and the needless ownership of three pairs of cowboy boots.

Perhaps it is because I now live in the city and the music is a nostalgic reminder of home – a place of open landscapes and dusty paddocks and tumbleweeds. Perhaps it is because I am steadfastly heading towards my mid-twenties and my taste has been blurred by the onset of premature wrinkles and a career crisis. Perhaps. I know on some level I could try to justify my love, try to defend the genre from accusations of hillbilliness, try to make it worthy, trendy, ironically cool. But I know in my heart, I cannot and do not want to. It’s country music – it’s music that by very definition is quintessentially uncool. And even though I am often embarrassed to admit it – I have to write it down… I like it.

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4 Comments

Filed under FROM THE VAULT, OPINION

4 responses to “From The Vault: Country Music Confessionals

  1. Country might be for the quaint, broken hearted simpletons from the South, but nonetheless I couldn’t help but inadvertently listening to “Gold” the minute I started reading your article. Loved it.

  2. Plough Boy

    I envy the shamelessness of it. Understand where you’re coming from though. I cut my teeth on my older brothers’ 80s cassettes like Hits Alive ’85, Summer ’87 etc (‘The 80s Tapes’ website has allowed me to track down the lost double-denim and mulleteers of my youth). The cross I bare is a proud ability to listen to Elton John’s, Billy Joel’s and Bryan Adams’ Best Ofs. I feel nostalgic about the bicentenary year when I overhear ‘You’re The Voice’. Somehow I emerged as a JJJ listener though – grunge probably steered my taste away from the rocky shores of pop-rock. After a serious stint, the spectre of hearing another Aussie hiphop song forced me to the indie ‘tude of FBI and also back in time. I found a love for 60s and 70s rock. Suddenly Bob made sense. It was a slippery slope. Finally I discovered, and I’m ready to say it – I think I like folk music.
    Is folk the dorky but likeable cousin of country, peeking in at the line dance in an oversized forest-green hand-knitted wool jumper? Discuss. But sneriously, I dunno, sometimes the line seems to blur.
    But if indulging your passion means you can play a pre-release Fleet Foxes album in full and introduce me to Bill Callahan and Silver Jews, your ongoing bedazzlement with country receives my whole-hearted endorsement.
    Happy trails (incidentally that’s a wicked Quicksilver Messenger Service album…)

    • Plough Boy,
      You’re right – folk is the dorky cousin. But there’s no shame in that. I think the jumper might be cream cable knit turtleneck though. Teamed with brown cords. I’m glad Pines has introduced you to some new favorite artists! And I am looking forward to sharing some new faves from my recent US travels with FBi listeners. Thanks so much for your nice words and for taking the time to check out the blog.
      Best
      Emma

  3. Plough Boy

    Cable knit and cords – gold. I’m reaching for The Watersons…
    Thumbs up to your 49 Goodbyes toons by the way – you’re very fortunate to have that voice. By chance I Iistened to Grievous Angel for the first time in the past week! And I only got hold of it after an Emmy-Lou-infused episode of ITPs. It was sitting on my Pod waiting to be revealed by the shuffle gods. Nice cover.
    Speaking of covers, I saw you’re supporting a band called Folk Uke. My brother told me he is having a crack at the ukelele and claimed this was a classic of the genre – look at the big fella go!

    Looking forward to hearing your discoveries.

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