Category Archives: FROM THE VAULT

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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Hey June

A Note From Johnny Cash to June Carter

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From The Vault Friday: (I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass

I love the sound of breaking glass
Deep into the night
I love the sound of its condition
Flyin’ all around

The words and melodies of English songwriter Nick Lowe first came to me in the same sweet period as Patti Smith Group, Elvis Costello and The Ramones. Not an unusual story I guess, since all those artists were roughly grouped together in one way or another in the late seventies. Except of course that I wasn’t yet born, so the possibility of being on trend was something of an impossibility. Let’s fast forward. It was about 1989 or 1990, which would have made me eight or nine years old, small framed and freckle-skinned and relieved to have finally grown out the bowl-cut hair disaster of 1987. My favourite item of clothing was a pair of acid wash jeans with floral patches.

I was showing the first signs of some kind of obsessive compulsive music disorder, which was mostly evidenced by the number of times I’d recorded The B-52’s Love Shack on a 120 minute VHS cassette just so I could play it back to back, again and again, in some sort of vague hope that if I watched Kate Pierson enough I’d eventually become her. I must have been driving my parents insane.

Although I’m not too reliable on the memory front – most of my high school years, my senior year excluded, have become a forgettable blur and all of my time at university is a jumble of interchangeable semesters – the period I discovered Nick Lowe is a sunset polaroid: white-framed and golden and permanent. I remember lying awake at night, all night, listening to the radio. I remember my sister’s constant frustration from the bunk above that I wouldn’t turn it off. I remember our lilac painted bedroom, red navigation lights flashing on a not too distant sea outside the window.

We lived in a three bedroom brick veneer home that must have been built in about 1975. It had all the suburban ugliness that that decade would allow. Brown faux wood laminate bench tops, copper coloured door handles, orange carpet… in the kitchen. And living in that space, it seems perfect now to recall that wedded though I was to the chart hits of the day, I was also in the first flush of a love affair with our parent’s haphazard, late seventies skewed record collection and quietly raiding it whenever I got the chance.

Some kids had parents who were precious about things like LPs, but fortunately for me, Ma and Pa’s many drunken parties had meant that almost all the albums (especially the good ones) were scratched beyond belief and I could explore without fear of discipline. Hell, they were hippies. I did everything without fear of discipline. And so away I went, thumbing through vinyl and marveling at the soft hum of the record player and getting musical crushes that would last longer than I could ever have imagined.

Cue: That Summer! The soundtrack to a 1979 film I’ve never seen but whose songs have stayed with me for more than twenty years. The album featured Elvis Costello ‘Watching The Detectives’ and ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’, Patti Smith Group ‘Because The Night’, Wreckless Eric ‘Whole Wide World’, The Ramones ‘Rockaway Beach’ and Nick Lowe’s brilliant ‘(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass’.

I (loved) (loved) (loved) ‘(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass’.

It goes like this:

The thrill of the piano trill against the driving bass and the beguiling, detached delivery of an almost pleading lyric:

I love the sound of breaking glass
Especially when I’m lonely
I need the noises of destruction
When there’s nothing new

I’m in New York at the moment and Nick Lowe is everywhere, enjoying a kind of popular resurgence off the back of a new album, an aptly titled return to form called ‘The Old Magic’ and about to play a much publicized North American tour with Wilco. Along with all the many things I look forward to getting around to in this city (thrifting, drinking, getting a tan) I can’t wait to hear the sound of breaking glass.

If you are stateside, you can check out the Nick Lowe/ Wilco tour dates here.

If you would like to download the That Summer! soundtrack, it is available here.

And if you would like to hear more vintage Nick Lowe…

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I’ve Loved Dolly Just As Long As You Have: Unpacking The Pines, June 7

Just when I thought I’d blogged my last about Dolly Parton, everyone’s favourite Tennessee mountain blonde decided she would do the almost unimaginable and tour Australia for the first time in 30 years. And so, just quietly, tenderly and in the most dignified way possible… I’VE BEEN GOING CRAZY WITH EXCITEMENT. Folks who’ve seen my strange collection of Dolly stuff will know that I am a huge fan. I’ve got the Playboy issue with her on the cover, I’ve got the Dolly doll, I’ve got pictures of her in frames on my wall and I have even decided to revoke my long-term philosophy on marriage (not really my thing/ don’t believe in it/might be getting too old to go to my grave married as many times as Liz Taylor so what’s the fucking point) for the suitor who proposes with/ already owns one of these:

I know, I know, my claims to sanity are getting more and more dubious… With the upcoming tour weighing heavily on my mind, there was never any doubt that tonight’s In The Pines would have a Dolly flavour. We heard: Dolly and Porter Wagoner’s I’ve Been Married Just As Long As You Have, Justin Townes Earle and Dawn Landes’ excellent cover of Do I Ever Cross Your Mind? and Allison Moorer’s re-working of Light Of A Clear Blue Morning which was released back in 2003 on the Parton tribute record Just Because I’m A Woman.

Dolly is playing shows across Australia in November and tickets will be available through the good people at Chugg Entertainment on June 20.

I promise not to play anymore Parton for a while now… Maybe… Probably… Perhaps… No really, the point of the program is to play brand new tunes of the Americana/folk/alt-country persuasion and if you tuned in tonight then you will know that against all odds I did manage that brief. Here are some highlights.

Thurston Moore, ‘Benediction’

Sonic Youth frontman goes acoustic on his Beck produced solo record Demolished Thoughts.

Jessica Lea Mayfield, ‘I’ll Be The One That You Want Someday’

I’ve already spun the single from JLM’s second LP Tell Me twice this year so tonight we had an album track.

If you’re not over ‘Our Hearts Are Wrong’ (and why would you be, it’s perfect) here’s a link to the Letterman performance from a few months back.

Dawes, ‘If I Wanted Someone’

California’s Dawes released their much-anticipated sophomore album Nothing Is Wrong today. I played the album version of ‘If I Wanted Someone’, which is golden and glorious can be downloaded here. I must have listened to it forty times today. When I finally stopped, I revisited it acoustic.

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Over & Out, Autumn: Post Pines May 31st

The Cowboy & The Lady

Walking home in the pissing rain last night it felt strange to think that we hadn’t yet reached winter in Sydney. My cowboy boots have been soaked for days. My hair has been a windswept mess for weeks. A recent trip to Canada’s East Coast prepped me for the unseasonable autumn cold, though my uniform of floral dresses and opaques and not much else would suggest otherwise. My drinking habits have been more of a revelation. I haven’t drunk white wine for almost a month. It’s strictly red wine and dark ales and cinnamon whiskey. And listening habits… well, here’s at look at what has leaked across the airwaves.

This week on Pines we explored the very new and the very old and a few songs in-between. Aside from brief sixties flirtations via Lee Hazlewood and Anne-Margret, the nostalgia fest of last week (on account of Bob Dylan’s birthday) was mostly swept aside for more contemporary sounds. And so it was that we slow-danced into the program with one of the more pensive tracks from New Orleans based Hurray For The Riff’s ‘I Know You’. It’s an album track and therefore impossible to find online but if you want a taster of the their sound, try this on for size:

Hurray For The Riff Raff, Too Much Of A Good Thing

From perhaps the best kept secret in Louisiana onto a band who are more or less the most popular folkies on the planet, Fleet Foxes. All beards, all harmonies, all the time. Here is their recent performance on Jools Holland. Check out Robin Pecknold’s sweet Gibson. I don’t care how cute they all are, it’s the guitar I’m lusting about.

The latest offering from sisters/brother trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis helped to break up what was close to becoming an overly earnest program. The trio wooed Australian audiences in January and are set to be back here a little later this year following the release of their latest album, Smoking In Heaven.

But… never one to stay with upbeat sounds for too long, we also heard an old mournful favourite from the fantastic Gillian Welch in the form of ‘ Time (The Revelator)’. I had the fear that her contribution to The Decemberists single ‘Down By The Water’ might be her only foray into new sounds for 2011, however, it’s been confirmed that Welch will release a new album on June 28. The album is called ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’. I’m pretty much counting down the days.

I haven’t been able to play this next song on Pines on account of it never having been officially released, but if you’re a Gillian fan and you haven’t heard ‘Throw Me A Rope/ The Way It Would Be’ prepare for some achin’ and breakin’. Complete with a Townes Van Zandt mention at the end…

And that pretty much wrapped it. However it must be said, although I only played Lee Hazlewood and Ann Margret’s spectacular ‘You Turned My Head Around’ once, I must have thought about it a thousand times this past week. So in love.

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From the Vault Friday: Bobby, You’ve Been On My Mind

There’s nothing quite like falling in love with a song. On the first listen it may be some line that rings true or a note that sings out and wraps itself around you like a winter coat. On the second listen, it may be the narrative starting to take hold or the way you can almost anticipate the rise and fall of the melody. On the third listen the romance really begins, the words form on the tip of your tongue and the harmony is there for the taking. At least, that’s how it is for me. My latest song infatuation is extra special because there are a couple of versions of it lying about it that I’m equally obsessed with.

‘Daddy, You’ve Been On My Mind’ first came to life as a ‘Mama, You Been On My Mind’, a discarded out-take from Bob Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Although it hit the reject pile for Dylan, Joan Baez ran with it and made it a commercial success. Judy Collins followed suit, performing it on television for Pete Seeger. And a very young Linda Ronstadt reworked it as ‘Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind’ for her 1969 album Hand Sown… Home Grown.

Of course each version has a special kind of intensity. For me, you can’t beat the way Baez sings the word ‘flat’ in the first line of her version. That alone makes it my favourite. But when Judy finger picks the shit out of it for Seeger, you can see exactly why giving up classical piano for a folk career wasn’t a bad thing. And Linda, doe-eyed Linda, well no-one sings a heartache with quite as much intensity. Linda also sings it on the beach wearing tiny shorts. Win.

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Dolly & Mick: Together At Last

A little bit country.

A little bit rock & roll.

A little bit of my brain exploding.

I’m not really the fan-fiction writing type. I’m too busy writing about life and music and all things in-between to get too caught up in any grand fantasies. But if I were that type, I would definitely have a crack at creating some kind of soft-core back stage romance between these two. This photo fills my head (amongst other things) with all kinds of happy scenarios.

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