Denver Bar Association
February 2002
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An Alt-Country Primer

by Greg Rawlings

Two kinds of music: Country and Western.

by Greg Rawlings

As rock music dies a slow death and country gets blander and slicker by the minute, it seems that only an unholy mixture of the two can save this fragment of the pop music universe. Whether it’s country rock, Bakersfield country, cowpunk, Nashville boogie, or punk country, there has always been some movement in which rock and country collide. This has usually been a good thing. Often it’s been a local thing—think Poco, Firefall, the bizarre Denver combo 16 Horsepower. I thought it might be nice, perhaps even instructive, to trace the lineage of the best aspects of this kind of music. Personally, I find myself listening to it more and more, just wishing that a local station did a better job of presenting it to the public. Then again, the second-rate nature of Denver/Boulder radio is a story unto itself. So here goes, an alt-country (the most popular name at present for country rock) primer. Notice the prevalence of late-80s works—this, I must admit, surprised me.

Red Headed Stranger

(1975). Willie Nelson’s masterpiece, and the Ur-text of alt-country. This warped tale of a homicidal preacher done wrong is short and tangy and unforgettable. It would have no place on country or rock radio circa now, which is kinda scary when you get right down to it. Includes a wonderful line about what happens in a perfect world when a bad woman tries to steal a good man’s horse.

The Basement Tapes

(1968, 1975). Bob Dylan and the Band. Maybe the quirkiest thing either entity ever accomplished. Off center tales of an America that is always there but never quite recognized; what critic Greil Marcus in his book about this record calls "the old weird America." Never before or since has Dylan sounded as loose as on this work. If it had been released when it was recorded, 1968, it might have utterly altered the pop landscape.

Live at Folsom Prison

(1968). Johnny Cash. An American icon at his absolute best. Contains the hottest duet in country rock history, as the Man in Black and wife June Carter Cash tear it up on "Jackson." Too many people remember the ’60s for dimwitted psychedelica, when it should be remembered for works like this.

Grievous Angel

(1973). Gram Parsons. The best thing this beautiful junkie did after he left the amazing Flying Burrito Brothers, where he basically invented country rock. His duet with Emmylou Harris on the old Boudreaux Bryant classic "Love Hurts" is almost as perfect as the Johnny and June number noted just above. It burns. Many a Boulder connection to this record and to Parsons in general.

Lucinda Williams

(1988). A flawless record by the screwed up, inscrutable woman genius of modern American music. From the opening notes of "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad," through the original version of "Passionate Kisses," and culminating in Chester Burnett’s awesome "I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)," Lucinda and her band (esp. guitar whiz Gurf Morlix) offer up the best thing from the Deep South since the days of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Life is not worth living without this album.

More a Legend Than a Band

(1972). The Flatlanders truly were more a legend than a band. Featuring the soulful Texas wail of Jimmy Dale Gilmore (former Boulder grocery store clerk), and the presence of Lubbock’s Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, no other country record, as far as I know, contains an ode to a guru—"Bhagavan Decreed"—and a musical saw. The lead tune, "Dallas" remains Gilmore’s finest moment. From the classic opening line, "Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?" onward, this is singular work. Although that saw does take some getting used to.

Copperhead Road

(1988). An overwhelming musical achievement by the great Steve Earle. This record kicks. It also tells an epic story of American outsiders, from the woods of bootlegger/pot farmer Tennessee to the presence of Americans at war in England and Vietnam. Perhaps no other modern American record oozes history the way this one does.

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

(1969). Neil Young swings from gentle country blues to deranged guitar jams on this epochal release. While not Young’s best album (that’s "Tonight’s the Night" or "On the Beach") it best exemplifies the potent admixture of country-style lyrics and rock guitar. The title track, brief as it is, speaks volumes.

The Trinity Sessions

(1988). I’m not really a big Cowboy Junkies fan, but on this record, Margo Timmons wraps her languid voice around both "Walking After Midnight" and "Sweet Jane" with complete ease—which is all but unimaginable—Patsy Cline and the Velvet Underground. Now that’s chutzpah. And her take on Hank’s "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," the greatest country lyric ever, is pretty fine, too.

American Beauty

(1970). The Grateful Dead’s follow up to the equally wonderful Workingman’s Dead. Why they ever did anything other than country blues with a rock push to it is beyond rational explanation. Different sounds for different drugs, I suppose. Consistently colorful songwriting and convincing playing make this a high point of the nasty period when the ’60s segued into the ’70s.

This is a field rife with great records and it seems a shame not to at least mention some artists whose works rank right up there with the favorites noted above: Little Feat, Wilco, Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown, Poco, Pernice Brothers/Scud Mountain Boys, Jayhawks, Dwight Yoakum. Well, open your ears, drop some dollars and support some great American music.

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