I had a strange epiphany on Thursday around 7 am, as I crested the rise before Falkland and saw the Howe of Fife laid out in all its glory, while Lucinda Williams growled in my ear about West Memphis: it was 5 years almost to the day since I began to appreciate country music for the first time.
Growing up in the Seventies, country seemed pretty much for old people, or at least the kind of people that would go along to country and western clubs, and/or learn to do line dancing. The stuff that came out of Nashville was slick, polished, schmaltzy, and seemingly devoid of any rebellious spirit. The only thing I knew about Willie Nelson was he featured in a pretty good joke (the punchline being: ‘well, I don’t know about the other two, but the one in the middle looks like Willie Nelson…’ if you haven’t heard it, don’t ask).
My musical tastes were pretty much guitar based rock, from Dylan and Springsteen through to punk and new wave. Anything with that whiny pedal steel noise just made me think of middle aged folks wearing checked shirts and Stetsons, trying to pretend they were from Louisiana rather than Lenzie.
Then, in 2011, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a conference in Nashville. We flew out the day after the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, and had a whale of a time. Seriously, all the good stories you’ve heard about Nashville was true. There was even a Gibson Guitars bus.
Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard in the bars on Lower Broadway was rock, or soul standards, but I heard enough of the real deal to begin to understand what country really was: one of the essential strands of DNA in Americana, that had gone on to influence all the music I had always liked. I read recently Springsteen saying that, before writing the songs that went into the River, he listened to Hank Williams, because he wanted to get that honesty of storytelling into the voice he used for the album. Three chords and the truth, indeed.
Back to that epiphany above Falkland, though. Although I’ve never been a massive fan of Scottish folk music, it did occur to me that it was strange, really, that all of my musical taste is really about American folk music instead – in other words, blues, country, gospel, and all those other DNA strands. Maybe it’s as simple as I consider myself more urban than rural, and Scottish folk seems to me much more rooted in its rural origins – and yes, I understand how Scottish folk has gone into the primordial soup from which Americana’s emerged, having danced a pas-de-basque (the Scottish country dance step all Scottish schoolchildren get taught, as part of an excruciatingly hormonal rite of passage in the school gym – again, if you’re not Scottish, don’t ask) to a bluegrass band when I was in Nashville.
Whatever. What I do know is that artists like Lucinda Williams and, more recently, Jason Isbell, have got me interested in country in a way I wasn’t before. One of the songs we’re doing at the gig on Saturday (Venus + Isaac: FB event here), ‘Death in Venice,’ is definitely country-influenced. I can even imagine a bit of subtle pedal steel on ‘Highway Tonight,’ one of the Venus Carmichael standards.
Of course this may just be that I am now middle aged. It is true that I am often seen wearing a check shirt; and my band leader for the second half of the gig, Mr Brutal, has been recently pictured wearing what could be described as a Stetson. But I’m not expecting any line dancing. Not to the whale song piece, at least.
And no matter how country I get, I’ll be trying my best to sing in a Scottish accent….
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