Tag Archives: Country

A Guide to the Wild Expanse of Cosmic American Music


Illustration by Gabriel Alcala

Gram Parsons is generally credited with the invention of “Cosmic American Music”—blues, country, and rock all rolled into one sparkling package. Then again, Gram Parsons also referred to what he’d wrought as a “‘country-rock’ plastic dry-fuck.” Still, it’s fair to situate Parsons somewhere near the head of the reinvigoration of American roots music that began in the mid ’60s, spearheaded by The Band and reaching its commercial peak with a series of country rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘70s. During this time, a good many performers found success combining the clarity of country with funk, blues, and R&B grooves, with the Muscle Shoals house band backing Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers selling out the Fillmore East, and J.J. Cale setting blues to drum machines.

These were artists that drew on a wide variety of American musical traditions and fused them into something vibrant, new, and exciting. At the same time, fingerpickers like Robbie Basho and John Fahey were reinventing vernacular guitar styles into what would later be called American Primitivism, and a good many semi-anonymous acts, immortalized on Light in the Attic’s Country Funk series, took the outlaw credo to its hip-shaking limits. This was American music in the broadest sense of the word, even if not quite all of its performers were American (see: Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie).

We’ve seen many Americana revivals in the time since, whether the roots-rock scene of the ‘80s or the O Brother, Where Art Thou?-inspired traditionalism at the turn of the century. These musicians are less easy to define as part of a movement, but share a common ground nonetheless. They’re mostly individuals, scattered throughout the country, with minimal commercial success. Their music has been collected on a handful of great labels (Scissor Tail in Tulsa, Paradise of Bachelors in Chapel Hill, Drag City in Chicago), each with a slightly different focus. But that glorious, syncretic impulse remains among them all, fusing folklore to funk, raga to R&B, in service all of some grand American musical vision.

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The Outsider Insights of the Queer Country Quarterly

Karen and the Sorrows

Karen and the Sorrows by Carol Litwin.

“This is the song about pickup trucks and liking girls that country music has been waiting for,” Karen Pittelman announced on stage this past January. Pittelman was performing with her band, Karen & the Sorrows, as part of the Queer Country Quarterly, a regular concert series that features a variety of queer-identifying country and roots musicians that she’s both organized and hosted at the Branded Saloon in Brooklyn since 2011.

Pittelman was introducing “Take Me For a Ride,” a song on her band’s forthcoming album that she wrote as her own take on “bro country,” the brand of oft-derided, commercial country that has taken hold of mainstream country music over the past five years.

“Right now, the critique of ‘bro country’ is that it’s the same old ‘girl in the pickup truck, with the painted-on jeans,’” Pittelman says during a recent interview in Brooklyn. “I agree with that critique. It’s boring to have the same song over and over again. But we can also ask more of a genre, rather than just throwing it away.”

In a musical style where heterosexuality is assumed, and where flirtation, sex, and romance is often filtered through a male perspective (to wit: there is currently just a single female solo artist among the 10 most popular country songs in America), Pittelman’s song offers a rare moment of splendid subversion: “Don’t care what those folks say / ’Cause I don’t even have one doubt / Wanna kiss that pretty mouth / And then keep on kissin’ south / You’re still the girl I dream about.” Continue reading

Story of a Song: Country For Syria

Country for Syria

“In The States” was meant to be a fairly simple song for Country For Syria, a “vacation song” of sorts, explains the Istanbul-based country music collective’s co-founder, Owen Harris. After the sprawling group, whose members are American, Syrian, Turkish, Czech, French, and Iranian, returned from a tour to the U.S. last year, they began to write the song processing the experience. For most of the band, it was their first time to America. But after Trump’s inauguration and Muslim ban executive order, they felt compelled to rewrite the lyrics.

“After the ban, everything changed,” says guitarist and vocalist Bashar Balleh, who is from Syria, and co-founded the group with Harris, who is American. “We knew that if Trump won, things would change, but not as fast [as they did]. It was the first thing done, banning Muslims.” Balleh and his wife, who is American, currently find themselves stuck in a state of limbo, unable to visit either of their families together. Three other members of the band have been affected by Trump’s travel ban as well, including two undocumented Syrian refugees currently in Turkey who find their future uncertain.

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Album of the Day: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “Best Troubador”

In the liner notes of his new album, Best Troubador, singer-songwriter Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Will Oldham, said he was already working on a tribute to country music’s Merle Haggard before his death in April 2016. In fact, “I thought we’d give it up,” Oldham said of he and his group’s work. We’re glad they saw this through.

Best Troubador surveys a wide swath of Haggard’s discography, with a pointed emphasis on lesser-known material. There are a number of tunes here that Haggard didn’t write—Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly” or the Jimmie Davis classic “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine” (the title is simplified to “Nobody’s Darling” on Best Troubador)—but they help fill in a portrait that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy paints, indicating the breadth and poetic sensibility of the country great. He leads a fantastic band, roomy enough to touch on Haggard’s broad curiosity as a true purveyor of Americana—a guy who made records paying tribute to the music of Western swing-heavy Bob Wills and Texas troubadour Jimmie Rodgers—including airy saxophone and flute lines prominently featured in the arrangements.

Guest guitarist A.J. Roach beautifully takes the lead on “The Day the Rains Came” and flutist Nuala Kennedy offers tender contributions to “Some of Us Fly.” The arrangements reach toward a cosmic strain of honky-tonk with a loose, swinging rhythmic feel shaped by drummer Van Campbell and bassist Danny Kiely that feels warmly lived-in, allowing the band enough space to chime in with instrumental asides—particularly from fiddler Cheyenne Mize and fellow guitarist Chris Rodahaffer.

It’s hard not to sense the affinity Oldham felt for Haggard, a guy who bent the rules of Nashville to suit his own quirks for more than five decades. But ultimately, it’s the songs themselves and the singular soul Haggard imparted to them that provides the inspiration for this homage, an effort that celebrates its subject through Oldham’s stubborn originality. On the surface it might seem like a strange entry into Haggard’s genius, but once the observer digs a bit deeper, Oldham emerges as the perfect guide.

—Peter Margasak

Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth on Songwriting and Side Hustling

Wooden Wand

James Jackson Toth’s career has been one of constant restlessness. At age 18, he began making Jandek-influenced psych-folk tunes and eerie noise recordings under the name Golden Calves. Then came his Wooden Wand moniker, and collaborative work with The Vanishing Voice, a staple of the “New Weird America” scene along with Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Akron/Family.

Frustrated by the constraints of that freak-folk style, Wooden Wand’s subsequent recordings took a more traditional alt-country approach, albeit one that has continuously evolved using subtle experimentation. Myriad collaborators and backing bands have helped Wooden Wand vary his sound from badass outlaw country music, to softly haunting folk ballads, to semi-improvised Crazy Horse jams.

While this restlessness has long fed Toth’s extraordinary prolificacy, Clipper Ship arrives after the longest break ever between Wooden Wand studio albums: exactly three years to the day since 2014’s Farmer’s Corner. “It feels increasingly senseless to continue to release albums in the traditional way, given both technological and cultural changes as well as the general mood of the country,” says Toth. “I began feeling guilty about adding to the glut, especially at a time when most people are rightfully far more concerned about losing their health care than they are about hearing a new batch of Wooden Wand tunes. Promoting such a thing seemed very suddenly vain, oblivious, disrespectful, and unnecessary. That said, I am an artist—that’s my function in the world—so I reasoned that as long as my contributions remained positive, they might continue to serve as some kind of balm or respite from the madness.”

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