Fire and Brimstone by Link Wray
I’ve lamented the death of country music before. Because as a meritorious form of popular musical expression, it is dead.
It’s not that I hate the music so much (even though I do). It’s more that I hate the industry that creates it, and I hate what it represents: manufactured versions of masculinity (drinking beer, chasing after good looking and vapid women), of femininity (screeds and revenge fantasies ’bout that fella that done ya wrong), romanticizing rural existences most of its creators ever led, and of jingoistic and anti-intellectual faux-patriotism playing on prejudices and ignorance. It consistently and successfully targets the lowest common denominators of real ‘merica, and it does a with stale and risk-less (N.B. unless you consider Jason Aldean and Dirt Road Anthem as “risky”) “music” written in a Nashville boardroom to be belched out by the newest and handsomest state fair performer with scruffy cheeks, ripped jeans and “distressed” straw hats, to be played ad nausem on corporate owned radio stations with names like the Twister or Redneck Junction or The Outlaw.
And subversion to the Nashville party line isn’t tolerated by the kingmakers of country radio. Resistance is futile (N.B. See: Chicks, Dixie) such that every new country artist sounds even more intolerably like the last. Draw me intelligent distinctions between Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Blake Shelton that involve neither Australia nor bald heads…didn’t think so.
I call that sewage Nashville Pop (NP) and will continue going forward, but typically I won’t be talking about it.
Now I know I’m being too dismissive of and heavy handed toward country music (as a distinct entity from NP) today, I know. There are country music artists out there telling stories that should be told and in my opinion doing right (Ryan Bingham, Chris Knight, Fred Eaglesmith, Charlie Robinson (N.B. Ups to Bob) and the indefatigable Steve Earle) but outside of Lebowski singing one of their songs have you ever listened to any of them?
Surely country music, I genre that I should and once loved, didn’t have to be this way, didn’t have to be bastardized into Nashville Pop. Surely the garbage you hear on (at least) 29 of the above referenced radio stations in the 405 can’t be descended from the music created by Bob Wills and Hank Williams and perfected by Cash and Patsy Cline and The Hags and Loretta Lynn and Townes Van Zandt.
But it is, and that’s chewed on me lately.
Remember in Back to the Future II when in the 50s old Biff gives young Biff the sports almanac and explains to him how to use it? Afterward when Marty gets (ahem) back to the future, Hill Valley is a dystopian shit show based on Biff becoming an all powerful degenerate gambler. He’s married Marty’s mom, George is dead, and everything generally sucks.
Turn on country music radio on your drive home and you’ll hear another dystopian shit show.
I know enough about neither music nor history to make any kind of well-reasoned assessment as to why this is the case and to why Nashville Pop exists and claims heritage with country music. But I do have an active enough imagination and eclectic enough tastes to ruminate on what country music could be if old Biff hadn’t given young Biff the sports almanac.
So the March WDs will be four tracks (two old and two new) that I think lend perspective on what country music was, could have been, might be, should be, and maybe is. None of them will bring us any closer to understanding NP and its crack pipe appeal, but I hope they, in the very least, will give you (like they do me) the confidence to tell someone you’re a proud fan of country music (N.B. and that you never fucking watch CMT).
Link Wray is first, and I have to preface my review of/comments on this track with how I became acquainted with it. It’s from a compilation album I bought titled Country Funk 1969-1975. Here is a couple of snippets from reviews to at least let you know what Country Funk is:
“In the late 1960s and especially in the early 1970s, country was breaking out of its native spaces and spreading nationwide. Its roots were in Tennessee and Texas, but it had business to take care of in New York, Detroit, and points west.” Link (N.B. Pitchfork’s review 8.4)
“It’s hard to pin down the particulars of country-funk because it’s less a subgenre than a vibe, an adventurous spirit that saw connections and openings where others saw barriers and divides.” Link (N.B. From an article on the A.V. Club, which so often seems to pull ideas out of my head just as I’m having them.)
The album is tooled with campy songs and poignant songs and killer songs by men, women, whites, and blacks (N.B. and native Americans…see below). If you’re like me, it creates a sound that, while familiar, you’ve never quite heard before, (N.B. And bet your ass you can cull a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack out of it if needed. It has horn and beats and (aptly) some funk, but at the same time is filled with an all-encompassing earnestness. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed these last few weeks.
In the middle of all this is the remarkable Fire and Brimstone by Link Wray. Two pronged Link Wray bio (1) A rock and roll guitarist and who by virtue of his song Rumble (which you’ve heard a thousand times without knowing it) invented the “power chord” which paved the way for punk and all other things heavy; (2) 1/2 Shawnee Indian.
Fire and Brimstone was the track that immediately stood out on Country Funk, and it sounds nothing like country music that you might have previously conceived. The Exile era Rolling Stones (N.B. more on them next week) at the end of his track is one of the few pronounced similarities to aneything on the entire album. I’ll be shocked if you consider yourself a Stone’s fan and don’t like this song.
Having said that, it’s difficult mentally to carve out a niche in my head for this song where country music also sits…maybe it’s there. What do you think?