Consider the alternative.
American country music (once known as "country and western") justly claims its origins in Celtic and Appalachian balladry and in its cousinly relation to folk music, gospel and blues, as well as some Tin Pan Alley tunes of the late nineteenth century. Historians and ethnomusicologist have traced this complex lineage and compiled a sizable literature.
Within the hierarchy of American music, however, country perennially struggles for status and legitimacy. Its longtime identification with lower-class whites tends continually to raise suspicions that this music belongs to the subliterate, not to the musically discerning. While black blues is welcomed as the exotic "Other," for instance, country music has seemed to migrate from the wrong side of the tracks. Blues musicians' vocal and instrumental skills seem to be expressions of inherent genius, but those of their country music counterparts are often held to exemplify the limitations of the unschooled, as if a coach and conservatory might eliminate the vocal twang and the whine of the steel guitar.
Country music has nonetheless found receptive audiences since the 1920s, when the Carter Family, Sara and Maybelle, along with husband/brother-in-law A. P. Carter, helped launch its era of commercial recording in the historic Bristol, Tennessee, sessions. To this day, country music from the honky-tonk to the Tex-Mex styles continues the Carters' tradition, its central form the ballad, its hallmark an emotional honesty in plainspoken lyrics.
These days, however, country music is a territory split between mainstream and alternative country, with key artists on the "alt" side of the border. The mainstream features such multi-platinum-selling female acts as the spirited Dixie Chicks and sexy pop-country balladeer Shania Twain. Alt-country claims a deliberately more emotionally searching musical style, emphasizing paradox and dilemma; it is not to be found on Top-40 smoothie, commercial radio.
Mainstream country is largely identified with the consumer-driven, youth-oriented New or Young Country movement of the 1980s and '90s. The complaint, most often voiced is that mainstream country music artists sound alike, their albums a string of banal ditties in predictable cadences, arrangements, rhyme schemes. In large part, the recording industry and radio markets are responsible for the monochromatic state of affairs. They target a consumer demographic whose presumed youth is taken to mean an inherent aversion to the kind of complexity and irony instanced in such classic country lines as the songwriter Harlan Howard's "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down." Exiled from current youth-market country radio are the longterm queens (and kings) of country music. You will not hear Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris (or George Jones either) on mainstream country radio. Were Patsy Chine or Tammy Wynette alive today, neither would air on mainstream.
Also unheard on today's almost 2500 country music stations nationwide are the younger artists of unusual vocal styling and "different" songs. Alt-country, in fact, is now a huge "underground" belonging to the more demanding artists. Their lyrics bear more resemblance to poems or even short stories than to a formulaic list of losses (love, dog, pickup truck). Alt-country's listeners, whatever their ages, are the self-identified grownups.
My interest here is a selective look at the range and depth in the work of five of alt-country's most important women artists: Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Mandy Barnett. Two are legends long admired for their fidelity to the music's roots even while they regularly release albums which break new ground, as in Emmylou's Red Dirt Girl and Dolly's The Grass Is Blue; three are among alt-country's best newcomers and off-center vocalists with distinctive signature sounds. There's no mistaking the unelaborated cadences of Gillian Welch for the sultry-wounded voice of Lucinda Williams, let alone mixing up either one with the lush-tc-the-horizon melancholy of Mandy Barnett.
Alphabetical order starts with Mandy, a former country music child prodigy and now one of country's big voices (a la Linda Ronstadt, whose own multigenre span from rock to Mexican mariachi music includes a distinctive country flavor in such albums as Heart Like a Wheel and Hasten Down the Wind). Last summer she sang the role of Patsy Clime in the revue Always... Patsy Cline at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry and Patsy Cline's own stage before her untimely death in 1963. Covering 25 Cline tunes ("Crazy," "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces"), Mandy not only inhabited Cline's music but updated it, giving it new depth and nuance with backbeat tempo and personalized dynamics until the audience got Cline-plus and clamored for encores, whooping their approval.
It could be said that Mandy represents the artist who is alt-country by default, meaning that only the procrustean standards of mainstream country could block airplay of a voice whose progenitors so self-evidently include Cline, Ronstadt and Brenda Lee. Her acclaimed debut album, Mandy Barnett, showcases a new, versatile talent whose range and dynamics can power the slow ballads and uptempo tunes penned by a who's who of country songwriters, among them Willie Nelson, Jim Lauderdale and Rodney Crowell. Her even-better sophomore. effort, I've Got a Right to Cry, features remakes of such standards as Don Gibson's "Give Myself a Party" and Boudelaux and Felice Bryant's "Don't Forget to Cry."
Subtle and authoritative, with all-stops-out power, heartbreaking sanglots, breathy whispers in a country style veering jazzward, the album's production values throughout are all the more effective for their instrumental restraint. Mandy Barnett, just 25, can be expected to keep pushing the boundaries of country music. She brings a neo-retro originality to the country catalog; the melancholy in her voice is classic country. She is a regular guest performer these days on The Grand Ole Opry, whose audiences know the deep tradition and respond enthusiastically to the authentic sound they recognize.
Emmylou Harris has been on the scene since the mid-1970s, when she emerged from the folk and country-rock music pioneered by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, especially under the guidance of Gram Parsons, a shaping force in contemporary country music and Emmylou's musical mentor before his premature death in 1973 at the age of 26.
From her first solo album in 1974, Pieces of the Sky, Emmylou immediately had a number-one hit in a remake of the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love." A multi-Grammy winner, Harris has seen five of her singles top Billboard's country chart, with another fifteen making it into the Top Ten. She has recorded the work of, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle and Julie Miller. Yet she also works the territory of country music's legends, reinterpreting and at the same time paying tribute to Kitty Wells.' "Lonely Street," The Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" and Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi."
Prolific, experimental, disciplined, Harris has cultivated a musical style that uses bluegrass, country blues and honky-tonk as its base. No other artist has taken greater risks of innovation within the larger traditions of country music. She received the Billboard Century Award in 1999, a significant honor in the music industry (previous recipients have included Joni Mitchell), but even it is possibly exceeded in importance by the reverence that many younger artists (e.g., Patty Griffin, Trisha Yearwood) have for Harris' musical authority, and her generosity in singing harmony on hundreds of others' albums endears her to colleagues and listeners alike.
Now comes her latest, Red Dirt Girl, a midlife, spiritually autobiographic gathering of eleven of Harris' own songs plus Patty Griffin's "One Big Love." Until now primarily an interpreter of others' work, Emmylou here lays full claim to being a songwriter. There is no ensemble akin to her longtime rock-inflected Hot Band here, no bluegrassy Nash Ramblers who backed Harris on so many albums, but instead the kind of small-ensemble, drum-and-keyboard Spyboy arrangement which, listeners first heard five years ago in Harris' Wrecking Ball, featuring Daryl Johnson's throbbing yet muffled percussion--which is a constant in Red Dirt Girl, along with the sustained unearthly guitar chords, layered as are chords in a Bruckner symphony.
Red Dirt Girl is an unflinchingly introspective personal reckoning. Its allusion to would-be Christian faith ("hoping for a glimpse/Of Galilee") is provisional, its guarded hope experienced uncertainly. The album is laden with symbols as portentous as those of the Book of Revelation. Here are circling dragons ("The Pearl"), "Troubled waters of the Rubicon" ("My Baby Needs a Shepherd"), "wings of fire and steel" ("Bang the Drum Slowly"). These sound a deep solemnity. They reflect an effort to come to terms with hurt, loss, injury to self and others, and an acceptance of blame and, if possible, self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.
Listening to Red Dirt Girl, one can trace a connect-the-dots path back to one of the first songs she wrote, "Boulder to Birmingham" (Pieces of the Sky), which is musically and lyrically an expression of unconsolable mourning for a dead beloved. That same sense of irremediable loss pervades Harris' "A River for Him" (Bluebird), reprised in Red Dirt Girl in "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," in which the singer admits that the effort to swim that river and get to higher ground has failed, leaving her mired in the past-present and fed up with her own obsession sick of her sickness.
The proper prelude to Red Dirt Girl is probably Harris' "Prayer in Open D" (Cowgirl's Prayer), which I heard in the early 1990s at the Birchmere, a northern Virginia club, when Harris had just written it. "Prayer" acknowledges the soul's "valley of sorrow," and the Sisyphean effort to ascend life's mountain with crushing burdens. In the intimacy of the moment. of performance, the jampacked Birchmere fell into a hushed, awed silence. Red Dirt Girl is an extended, similar in camera project, offering listeners a kind of private audience held in a "deeper well" drilled over decades of shared musical meeting of the minds between artist and audience.
Dolly Parton, one of Emmylou's partners (with Ronstadt) in the Trio and Trio fi albums, recently released a bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue, her most critically acclaimed work in years. Its musicality, in fact, might surprise those better acquainted with the flashy superstar, the pop-media, over-the-top "personality" with the down-home jokes (e.g. "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap").
Music might be the last aspect of Dolly Parton that many people notice these days, but for those willing to listen, a musical trove awaits, Parton has rightly been called a female pioneer who "helped revolutionize the world of country music for women performers." The virtuoso instrumentalist Jerry Douglas (himself an honored figure in country music circles, and dobro guitarist in the Grass Is Blue ensemble), sums it up not in hyperbole but, from the studio-session experience: "Dolly Parton is the consummate musician."
The Dolly musical primer is the two-CD box set, Dolly Parton: The RCA Years, 1967-1986, which shows her range from poignancy to flirtation to despair and endurance. Like many country stars, she has sought pop-chart crossover success, sometimes to the detriment of her music. But cull the frou-frou, and what stands is an extraordinary oeuvre. The Grass Is Blue features the finest of musicians in a country-music subgenre that requires the highest level of performance skill. Bluegrass, which is paradoxically rural-identified and yet modernist in microtonal harmonies, challenges Dolly to song writing ("Steady as the Rain," "The Grass Is Blue") and also showcases her powerfully moving singing of fundamentalist Christian gospel, an uptempo but chilling version of the traditional murder ballad "Silver Dagger" and hearty rendition of the Bill Monroe standard "Cash on the Barrelhead"--all at levels of vocal subtlety matching the best work in her long career.
Bluegrass is also the musical home base of alt-country's Gillian Welch, a Californian who came to Nashville in 1993 by way of Boston's Berklee School of Music, where she met her partner, guitar accompanist and harmony vocalist David Rawlings. Soon Nashville was buzzing about a young woman with a cache of great off-center songs. Gillian, with Rawlings, entered the studio to record Revival and then Hell Among the Yearlings.
Gillian's vocal delivery perhaps most resembles the raw-boned sound of West Virginian Hazel Dickens, and her catalog is equally political, its issues displaced to rural Depression America or to indeterminate sites of hard times and hard work like tenant farming and mining. "There's something good/ In a worried song," goes the lyric of "Miner's Refrain" (Hell Among the Yearlings). And much good to the listener's ear comes from these minor-key "worried" songs in which angelic wings prove to be paper ("Taper Wings"), and the apparently pretty is really tawdry ("Barroom Girls"). Gillian sings with cultivated nasality and starkness of line, as if determined to get to the very bone, as if her best venue would be a gutted house.
There's backdraft feminism here too, as she inverts the misogynist murder ballads abounding in folk-country-bluegrass music ("Pretty Polly" or "Knoxville Girl"), in which male jealousy implicitly justifies the homicide. In "Caleb Meyer," a woman pinned to the ground and about to be raped reaches sideways, grasps her attacker's whiskey bottle and slashes his throat, though his ghost forever haunts her mind. Occupying the musical world of traditional Appalachia, Welch honors it from a twenty-first century mentality.
Like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams is a singer-songwriter, though hardly a newcomer. A Louisianian who played Texas clubs in the 1970s, Lucinda mixed folk and Delta blues with her own material, but her listener base grew sizeable only in 1988, with the release of Lucinda Williams, followed by Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won a Grammy in 1998 (in the category of Best Contemporary Folk album). Vocally, her delivery questions, indeed demands, life's meaning, all in Vibrato-rich alto tones favoring great resonance, the way you might sound in your own ears if you could have a head cold free of all stuffiness but rich in amplification.
Over and over again the songs ask, What' is a person--especially a woman--entitled to in this life? In "Passionate Kisses" (recorded and made famous by Mary Chapin Carpenter in Come On, Come On), Williams itemizes "a comfortable bed! that won't hurt my back" and "food to fill me up" and "all that stuff" She wants to know, "Is it too much to ask" and "shouldn't she have" these things, topmost among them the "passionate kisses" which surely must be standard-issue equipment for life.
But mostly they're not. Lucinda's songs often focus on individuals' unaided efforts to kick-start life, to find "love and grace" by heading out for West Memphis or hitting the highway in the middle of the night because "I Just. Wanted to See You So Bad" or because "the night's too long/ It just drags on and on." Her music also honors the power of irrational detail: "There's a little thing that drives me wild/.... I can't get over the lines around your eyes." The Williams catalog maps the South, in towns and along roads from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Jackson, Mississippi, but the place names fail to satisfy either as origins or destinations. Beneath her vocal bravura lies a loneliness no rebellious spirit can conquer.
Yet it's a "Sweet Old World," or maybe the only one we've got, as she writes in a gentle song to a suicide: "See what you lost when you left this world/ This sweet old world." Other suicides--they do seem to figure in her music--led her to write rough and wrenching eulogies in "Pineola" and "Drunken Angel," the latter a farewell to Texas guitarist Blaze Foley. Lucinda insists musically that the pearl and the grain of sand coexist.
These alt-county artists redraw musical boundaries with their every album project. Theirs is the work that sets high standards for country music, and listeners seeking something more than aural wallpaper will make the effort to find and follow them, knowing that "alt" today is the heart of the heart of country.
CECELIA TICHI is the author of High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music (University of North Carolina Press) and editor of Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-Tonk Bars (Duke University Press). Under the name Cecelia Tishy she writes the Kate Banning mystery series, set in Nashville, where she teaches American literature as the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
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|Title Annotation:||alternative country musicians|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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