Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Could have been a country boy

It's happened on a few occasions in my life, especially back in college. It happened in Nashville a couple years ago. And it happens a lot more frequently now, thanks to L: the feeling that maybe I should be listening to country music. Country is like the flip side of R&B, the twangy yang to the soulful yin. Despite the differences, I do feel like the white people singing country approach their craft with the same kind of emotion and vocal expression as any good R&B singer.

I've been thinking about this lately because I read a great article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, talking about the lack of what he calls "musical miscegenation" in contemporary rock. Unlike previous eras, today's whiny indie/emo musicians seem to ignore the black heritage of most rock music. Frere-Jones talks about how most great rock incorporates the rhythms of black music, offering as an example the drumbeat in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- it could belong to any dance track. Yet today's music (and he called out Arcade Fire and the Decemberists and other bands I could care less about) seems more focused on precious lyrics and affectedly bad singing than rhythmic impulse. Why would anyone do such a thing?

He traced one vein of "musical miscegenation" (still not sure how I feel about that term) back to the old recordings of folk songs from the 1930s. Songs sung by white country folk were nearly indistinguishable from black blues recordings. From this common source you get both country music and R&B.

The Oxford American magazine puts out a southern music issue each year, including a CD, and I always try to remember to grab it -- it's introduced me to some great tracks by southern and country artists I never would have heard otherwise. And the similarities to the black music I love are striking -- the same kinds of narrative, the same subject matter, the same vocal acrobatics and ad-libs.

L, of course, has provided me with a steady country diet, adding artists like the Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban, Sara Evans, and Johnny Cash to my iPod (I've also added some Keith Anderson, Chely Wright, and LeAnn Rimes on my own). Some of these songs are so striking and so beautiful. Many of the elements of country music are completely enjoyable in their own right: the twangy guitars and wurlitzers, the celebration of a rural American ideal, the optimism that marks most of today's country-pop. Even the reliance on real live instruments can be a breath of fresh air, when the purely electronic beats of, say, Beyonce, seem utterly synthetic and unreal.

What's most interesting to me are the songs that could fall into either camp: Ne-yo's "Do You," Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry" (or as L calls it, "Just Drunk Enough"), or the Reba/JT collaboration, "The Only Promise That Remains." Any of these songs could be a hit in the other genre, simply by adjusting the instrumentation and changing the vocal style just a bit. I was trying to figure out how to sing "Do You" in a country way, and after a long while I tried to slow the song down, add some twang and some of those old-school country swoops where your voice drops in the middle of a word and then comes back up -- and it sort of worked.

Country music: the genre I could have loved. Clearly I don't know what I'm talking about with any of this, but I do enjoy thinking about it -- trying to figure out precisely what thrills you about music, what makes the music so vital and necessary to you, and then searching for that same thing in unexpected places. And then, of course, the startling thrill of actually finding it.

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