Metawyrd Archives: Can’t Miss Folk and Country

While the Can’t Miss Blooz post was a breeze to write, building a list of Can’t Miss Folk and Country was much harder. So much variety to sum up in so few releases! Well, here’s a few good’uns for your perusal.

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (Elektra) If you are searching for an archetypical “leftie folk singer of the ’60s,” Phil Ochs has to be your man. While Dylan and Baez and Seeger made their own contributions, Ochs really honestly and truly believed in a better world through socialism–slashing songs like “Love Me I’m A Liberal” pretty much define the era. Even better, he had all of the talent to back up his radical views. His passion and fire can move even today. Try the reverse schadenfreude of “There But For Fortune,” the classic anti-war song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” the gorgeous setting of Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman,” his eloquent ode to endurance “When I’m Gone,” or the scorching anti-racist sentiments of “Here’s To The State of Mississippi.” A truly amazing collection which features songs from Ochs’ many albums, and it’s made even more poignant by Ochs’ suicide in 1976.

Anne Briggs: Anne Briggs (Water) Many people think of acoustic guitars and work songs when it comes to folk music. That whole attitude comes from the Old American Communists and their quest for true “voices of the people” which would unite the proletariat. But there is an earlier definition of folk music thanks to 19th century European song collectors such as Francis John Child. My favorite takes on Child ballads usually involve solo unaccompanied singing and fortunately, the ’60s UK folk revival had more than a few great female singers who performed in that genre.

Ms. Briggs was one of those singers and her first album is a beautifully sweet collection of mostly unaccompanied vocal music (which was reissued in recent years by Water Records). Though Americans like Jean Ritchie and Roscoe Holcomb sing Child ballads and other related tunes without accompaniment, usually the Yanks sing in a highly inflected Appalachian style and that can be hard on newbie ears. So I chose Ms. Briggs and her wonderful takes on auld tunes like “The Snow It Melts The Soonest,” “The Cuckoo,” and “Young Tambling.” The tracks with accompaniment (“Blackwood Side” among others) are also quite fine.

Byrds: Sweethearts of the Rodeo (Columbia) – Summing up country in even two or three releases is just plain impossible, especially since the classic trebly AM sound of classic country (a la Hank Williams Sr.) can really piss off many listeners. So instead, I went with the ’60s jangle-rock pioneers the Byrds and their classic country-rock album “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.”

Most of the tunes on “Sweethearts” have that classic honky-tonk sound without that trebly overkill. Maybe Byrds producer Gary Usher had something to do with the change in sound. There is also a fair amount of sonic variety besides, including the old-timey take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the high Appalachian pickin-and-fiddle of “I Am A Pilgrim,” and the straight up Byrdsian country-rock of “One Hundred Years From Now.” If you want to try country, it’s a pretty good place to start.

Joe Henry: Short Man’s Room (Mammoth/Atlantic): Now this isn’t exactly a country album. But then again, getting people into country is a delicate matter. If you listen to today’s country radio, you get the impression that country is Def Leppard meets the Eagles with a fiddle on top. Now that’s not right, is it? However, as I said above, classic country is hard to swallow if your ears are grounded in the 21st century.

So we need to find a genre that isn’t modern country, isn’t classic country either, yet presents the elements of country in an an accessible way. Well, I found my answer in “alt-country,” a curious subgenre born in the ’90s that attempts to revive classic country sounds in a wide range of contexts. Though alt-country drowned in the infinite sea of the Internet (a few of the genre’s sounds leaked into modern country while most of the bands just floated off into nowhere), some of the genre recordings were just plain great and I will always believe that Joe Henry’s album “Short Man’s Room” is pretty much the best alt-country I have ever heard.

On “Short Man’s Room,” singer-songwriter Joe Henry is backed by the Jayhawks, who were and still are one of the best bands to emerge from the subgenre; however, the Jahyawks never really had the songwriting chops to break out of the alt-country corral. On this album, Henry matches the Jawhawk’s amazing musicianship with the brilliant songs that they never wrote and he inspires the band to really shine. The songs on this album capture moments in time as good or better than anyone, including Dylan. Some of the best songs on this album include “Last Man Out” (closing a small town bar), “King’s Highway” (an outlaw getting ready to pounce), and “Friend to You” (man realizes he won’t get the girl, not ever).

As for the the sounds on this album, the Jayhawks turn in near-perfect performances. There’s plenty of fiddle, quite a bit of pedal steel, but all of it is very tasteful and carefully combined into a beautiful and effective whole. Even pedal steel haters like my dad would find it hard to dislike this album. It’s wondrous to behold. “Short Man’s Room” is on my, ahem, short list of lost gems and crucial reissues from 2050. Please, do give it a listen.

For The Faithful (Folk): “Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia” CD (Smithsonian Folkways), “Songs Of The Old Regular Baptists: Lined-Out Hymnody From Southeastern Kentucky” (Smithsonian Folkways), Jean Ritchie: “Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition” CD (Smithsonian Folkways), Grateful Dead: “Reckoning” CD (Arista), Young Tradition: “Young Tradition/So Cheerfully Round” (Castle)

For The Faithful (Country): “The Bristol Sessions: Historic Recordings from Bristol, Tennessee” 2CD (Country Music Foundation); “The Best of Webb Pierce: 20th Century Masters” (MCA Nashville); Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt: “Trio” CD (Warner Bros./WEA); Cowboy Junkies: “The Trinity Session” (RCA); “GP/Grievous Angels” by Gram Parsons (Reprise/WEA).

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