Tag Archives: Alt-Folk

Country music confessional

Flannel shirts, failed romance, heartache, heartbreak and sad, sad songs. All the reasons I’m a sucker for country.

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 27 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 skooting. 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 labeled 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 late-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 and justify my love, try to defend the genre from accusations of hillbillyness, 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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Neko Case, City Recital Hall

January 12, 2009

Oh Lord how l love the rich, velvet tones of Neko Case’s gutsy soprano voice. She is a singer’s singer, as effortless on those crisp clean top notes as she is deep down in the bottom of her range. It’s a femme fatale of a voice, perfect for Country Noir – strong and expressive and seductive but with just a hint of sweetness. Case is in town as part of the Sydney Festival, a sprawling showcase of some of the best arts and culture experiences happening across the globe. The festival is famed for bringing great musical talent to the city and putting them in venues that aren’t typically used as performance spaces, and that is perhaps where the problem lies with this show. Case hates the venue. And because it’s her second show, most of the audience already know there’s a problem with the space because a pretty disappointing review of last night’s performance has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald .

I wasn’t at the fateful first gig so I can’t say if I agree with Herald reviewer Bernard Zuel’s sentiments or not. But what I can say is that the City Recital Hall is a pretty lame place to watch a rock show. It’s a well-lit room with tiered seating and polished surfaces and white wine served in tiny plastic cups. As someone who prefers guzzling beer in venues where I can feel my feet sticking to the floor, I can empathise with Case, who belongs in dimly lit bars with squelching gin soaked carpet and not on a stage designed for string quartets and chamber orchestras.

But… the show must go on…

Neko and her band bring a humble and endearing presence to a stage that they are clearly uncomfortable on. There is a gorgeous camaraderie between Case, who barely talks between songs, and her bawdy backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Hogan is unafraid to joke with the audience and with the band, and of course, effortlessly provides that rich haunting echo that makes the harmony hit you were it hurts. Most of the set list is made up of the most recent record Middle Cyclone, with highlights including ‘This Tornado Loves You’ and the tender, mournful ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’. In jeans and sneakers, Case’s casual stage presence is juxtaposed with the glamorous melodrama in every drawn out note and by the time the band breaks into ‘That Teenage Feeling’ from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, I’ve been well and truly wooed. But somewhat foolishly, I am lulled into a false sense that the rest of the audience is swooning too… until this happens…

Idiot lady in the audience: Can you turn the amps off?

My internal monologue: Hey rude festival twat, don’t ruin the vibe with your rude interjections and clear lack of knowledge about the artist, her back catalogue and the finer points of Country Noir (i.e. the necessary use of an amp!)

Rest of the audience: silence, collective sip of alcoholic beverage, more silence.

Neko Case: What a fucking stupid question. This is a rock show. Can you go and sit in the toilet? You might enjoy the show a whole lot more from there.

It’s hard to say what happens to the gig from here, except that it is tense. Case has defended her right to play her songs the way she always has, to someone who clearly hasn’t listened to any of her albums and is probably there on a sponsor affiliated freebie ticket. The overwhelming feeling in my section of the audience (i.e. diehard country fans in the back row of the second tier) is one of embarrassment and hope that the show can go on.

Indeed it does, and Case’s full, sad melodies echo across the hated hall and the hater(s) in the audience. I soak it up, grateful just to hear one of the finest voices of her generation live in my city. But I can’t help but sit there hoping that next time Case comes to town, if she braves our fair city again, we’re in a seedy, dark venue with seedy, dark patrons to listen to seedy, dark music without festival types doing their best to make it seem as though beautiful music is falling on deaf ears.

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