Although I lived in Nashville until I was nearly 13, and spent major chunks of my summers there until I was 21, I’ve never really been much into country music. Typically, I find it both overly polished and overly simple. I tend to think that if you’re playing something simple, you had best play it like your hair is on fire — like you really mean it. I didn’t hear much of that in the “countrypolitan” sound of my youth, and I certainly don’t hear it on the radio when Mrs. M is listening to a country station. (Please note that this is in no way a comment on the performers as musicians — I can assure you that any “real” working musician has talent that I’ll never have. I tend to blame the fact that Nashville is a producers’ and songwriters’ town, and the combination results in what sounds to me as homogenized, lifeless music.)
There are a few exceptions, however. One, of course, was Johnny Cash, who could have made a toilet paper jingle sound like the most important thing you would ever hear. But it’s kind of a cliche to like Cash these days — I still do, and I did even in the pre-Rubin era, but my inner indie snob gets irked at having to share his coolness with hipsters who drink Pabst ironically. C’est la vie, I guess.
On the other hand, I still have Buck Owens, to whom I was listening this evening after a run to Real City to buy some springs for my kick drum pedal. Too many people only know his work from Hee-Haw (a side note: when I was a kid, my class toured the Channel 5 studios in Nashville, and I walked through the show’s original “cornfield.” Sic transit gloria cornpone.), and the fact that the Beatles covered “Act Naturally”, but even when I was a little kid, I knew there was something in his songs that had more vitality than the stuff that would play on WSIX-FM.
As I got older, I learned a little more about what made Owens’s “Bakersfield Sound” distinctive — the Fender Telecaster, the bright, treble-y mix designed for transistor AM radios, and perhaps most of all, the astonishing harmonies and guitar work of Don Rich, who may have been one of the great “secret weapons” of country music. But I think a key to what engaged me about both Johnny Cash and Buck Owens was the fact that they were willing to experiment musically and take chances. While everyone knows about Cash’s risk-taking, both musical and personal, I think a couple of fine examples of Owens’s willingness to break from the norm can be found in two of his hits from 1969.
Check the punked-out fuzztone guitar:
And in this one, the extra measures that just seem to pop up here and there add a certain tension to the song:
Folks, if you can’t dig this stuff, you need a better shovel.
It’s not like Buck’s obscure or anything — the musicians know, John Fogerty famously namechecked him, and the fact that the Beatles not only covered him, but reportedly had a standing order with Capitol for advance copies of his work should give him all the cred anyone would need, but it can sometimes be easy to overlook what he did when we’re deluged by the various soundalike stuff on contemporary country radio. One of the cool things about blogging is that I can remind us about this kind of thing from time to time.
And just for laughs, can you imagine what would happen if someone released a song like this one these days?