by David James
Much-admired documentary maker Ken Burns has produced a series on country music, which makes for some intriguing musical ethnography.
Country music, unlike most of the rest of the music “industry” in America, actually does have a tradition. Whereas the crime and drug-fuelled music “industry” in America (and Australia) has for decades engaged in brutal exploitation of the artists, country music, while intensely competitive, does at least make some attempt to nurture its talent. Maybe being a booze-filled industry leads to softer outcomes than being a hard drugs industry.
In any event, it is still possible to have a sensible career in country music, mainly from touring, in a way that is becoming progressively more difficult in other areas of popular music. The results are conspicuously superior. Listen to the annual Country Music Awards and much of the singing reveals a musicality that has long since exited the stage in other areas of popular music.
Or listen to the spectacular performances from Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town in the Grammy salute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Their skilful, expressive vocals exposed the mediocrity, or outright awfulness, of the other pop performers, especially Kesha, Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran. The only pop performers who seemed to be at the same level were Lady Gaga, more for her technical ability than musicality, and Sam Smith, whose expressiveness is not in doubt. All manner of sins are exposed when you are performing live and have to, you know, sing.
What emerges from Burns’ documentary is that quality singing has not been a consistent hallmark of country music. In fact, much of it has been downright horrible. The most important early performer was Hank Williams. His vocalising was expressive, and he had a good grasp of nuance and pitch. But his tone was plain and his phrasing predictable and repetitive. Most of the appeal seems to derive from the self-pitying lyrics, which were delivered with the required pathos. “Give me another glass barman, so I can cry into it.”
That self-pitying posture – country music is an art form of the American lower classes and under classes – has been central to the aesthetic (As evidenced by the joke: What happens when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, your house back, your dog back).
Which is the only way to explain how Kris Kristofferson got away with such execrable singing. To his credit, Kristofferson often seems appalled by his own performances, and justifiably so. He does not torture the ear quite as much as Neil Young or Bob Dylan, but he gives it a try.
That was not the point, though. In his songs he showed himself to be an imaginative storyteller and to have a poetic ear for words. He penned such vivid pieces as Me and Bobby McGee and Sunday Morning Coming Down, potent expressions of loneliness, dissipation and of being buffeted by forces greater than the individual will. Helplessness against the world’s, and one’s own, vices is the perennial moral drama in country music.
There have been many country singers for whom the singing was the main point. Johnny Cash was the king of phrasing, placing the words in exactly the right place. His voice was deep, almost stentorian, and possessed an air of authority that lent conviction to everything he sung. He could have performed the tritest nursery rhyme and his construction of the melodic line would have been so convincing it would have sounded like a disquisition on the deeper meanings of life.
Many of the female performers had exceptional vocal talents, especially Patsy Cline, whose penetrating tone and use of jazz phrasing gave her performances weight. The vocal abilities of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette are beyond question. There are some excellent modern country singers, perhaps the best being Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
And then we have Dolly Parton, who is a marketing phenomenon and a skilled songwriter but vocally very much a mixed bag. Her use of tremolo is particularly annoying and her phrasing rarely extends beyond the banal. Parton says that she does not mind dumb blonde jokes because she is not dumb and not blonde. She is also not much of a singer.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.
You can watch Ken Burns’ eight-part series Country Music online at SBS On Demand.