Country Music Starter Set

Tyler Cowen and Alex Massie, an economist and a Scotsman, might seem to be odd sources for advice on American country music but they’ve both written interesting posts on the topic. Neither grew up with the tradition but they found religion and are now offering recommendations for those looking to wade in.

Cowen suggests, Hank Sr., The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and The Flying Burrito Brothers for starters and suggests moving on to the Louvin Brothers, Tragic Songs of Life, Dolly Parton, Dock Boggs, Patsy Cline, and, of course, Johnny Cash. He also likes Ryan Adams. Meanwhile, he finds that, “George Jones and Bob Willis and Merle Haggard are all in my view somewhat overrated.”

Massie agrees with that finding and seconds Cowen’s other recommendations and adds several names to the list, including Emmy Lou Harris, Waylon Jennings, and Townes van Zandt.

First things, first: Jones and Haggard are overrated in the same sense as the Beatles and “Star Wars.” They’re archetypes of the genre but others have copied them so much that it’s easy to come to the party late and wonder what the big deal is.

I must confess, though, that I’ve never gotten into Bob Wills (although I’m led to believe he’s still the king). He popularized Texas Swing and had a huge influence on later artists who I like much better. But, frankly, I don’t like the high pitched, whiny voices that were popular in old-timey hillbilly music. For the same reason, I prefer Hank Jr to Hank Sr and the successors of Bill Monroe to the Father of Bluegrass.

As to the artist lists Cowen and Massie compile, I’d say they make for a good sampling of the genre, although perhaps an overbroad definition. Which is fine, really. Country radio nowadays includes Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Eagles, and several acts that were pure rock and roll in their day. Still, were I trying to introduce someone raised on other types of music to country, I would probably hold off on some of these choices.

Steve Earle famously proclaimed that, ”Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” (To which Van Zandt retorted, “I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”) While that might be hyperbolic, it’s certainly the case that Townes wrote some great songs and influenced a whole generation of musicians. He was not, however, a great singer and he can be an acquired taste. “Flying Shoes” and “Dead Flowers” are classics, though, and could certainly be included in an introductory mix tape.

Speaking of Steve Earle, I’d definitely include him on the list. While some critics hate his singing style, he’s more friendly on the ears than Van Zandt and his Southern rock influence will help smooth the transition. (Although, oddly, his version of “Way Down in the Hole,” the theme song for The Wire, was the worst of the five. His acting on the series is much better. Go figure.)

Robert Earl Keene belongs on the list. Like his Aggie neighbor, Lyle Lovett, he never got a lot of play on country radio. His ironic lyrics, upbeat tune, and musical skill will appeal to those predisposed to dismiss “hick music.” I’d especially recommend “The Road Goes On Forever,” “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” and “I’m Comin’ Home.”

As to the ladies, while it’s hard to go wrong with Parton or Harris, I’m not sure Alison Krauss isn’t a better starting point. Her vocals are even better and she’s a virtuoso fiddle player backed by a band of incredible musicians. That she’s a Midwesterner might make the introduction easier, too.

I’m sure I’m missing some obvious choices.

UPDATE: Like, duh, Willie Nelson. And, as Massie noted in an email exchange, Dwight Yoakam.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I used to work at a country station, 990/WNYR. I basically rode the wave, there of the corssover of southern rock, Soucal Country (ala Eagles, Buritos, etc) Waylon, etc, and basically riding the seam of where those sounds mixed with more traditional country. The trick was getting the mix to work.. at the time it was a fairly new idea.

    I’ll agree with all of yor choces, and add Don Williams to the list, particularly if you like a gentler sound.

    Hank Jr said in his autobiography, years ago, that there was a mix there, that couldn’t be denied… and he cited, the Allman bros “ramblin’ man” as a country tune. And certainly, there’s a lot of country and blues in the roots of rock; It’s illogical to thnk that doesn’t flow both ways.

    That’s one reason the Countryworld went through such a shakeup in the middle 70’s… they tried to deny that linkage and became, in my view, ar too plastic to be genuine. Frankly, Southern Rock did more for Country music in terms of shaking the place up, than it did for Rock.

  2. sam says:

    I’m not sure he qualifies as “country”, but I do recommend you give Ryan Bingham a listen, his album’s called Mescalito.

    It used to be called ‘Country and Western’, but I’m afraid there’s not much Western music any more. In so far as there was a distinction between the two genres, Western music more about the Western outdoors — I’m thinking of songs like Cool Water, Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds by The Sons of the Pioneers.

    Interestingly, I was watching a TV program on Hank Williams, and he once went to a reknowned black blues singer saying he wanted to learn to play and sing the blues. The old fellow disuaded him and told him the “country music was the blues for white folks.” Judging from the songs Hank subsequently wrote, he took that to heart.

  3. James Joyner says:

    It used to be called ‘Country and Western’, but I’m afraid there’s not much Western music any more.

    There was a brief resurgence in the early 1990s, with Garth Brooks incorporating several Western-themed songs into his early repertoire and, more importantly, launching Chris LeDoux into prominence. George Strait, himself a pretty fair roper, had some rodeo songs, too, notably “Amarillo by Morning.”

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    So, am I the only Willie Nelson fanboy out there or what?

  5. Since most country music today is just pop music with a twang, I’m not sure the labels help to distinguish it much any more.

    I’d throw in Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Glen Campbell.

    I like Robert Earl Keene and Lyle Lovett a lot, but are you sure they’re country? Was Elvis country? Or Neil Young?

  6. Triumph says:

    I second Alex’s nomination of Willie Nelson.

    An easier rule of thumb to follow is simply not to listen to anything recorded after 1979.

    Aside from a few Willie albums and some of the “comeback” work of Johnny Cash–country has remained stagnant for at least the past 20 years.

  7. James Joyner says:

    My Okie blood tells me that Buck Owens has to be on the list. Some of those “artsy fartsy” country singers there just don’t belong.

    Where’s Conway? Where’s Charlie Pride? You east coast dandies have a weird idea about what country music is.

    You misunderstand the point of the list, which is to introduce “gateway” country singers to non-country fans to get them past their cultural prejudices to the genre.

    I’m a big Charley Pride fan but I grew up on that kind of music; I’m not sure “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” or “Is Anyone Goin’ to San Antone” would pass muster with a twenty-something from New England.

    Conway Twitty might, actually. His stuff was uneven but he was a rockabilly artist who became a pop-country artist. Glen Campbell might be another good choice from that era.

    Buck Owens would be a Phase II kinda guy. He’s too corny for starters, I think, but he had some terrific stuff.

  8. James Joyner says:

    So, am I the only Willie Nelson fanboy out there or what?

    D’oh, no Willie’s a given. Indeed, I was going to offer him up as an obvious alternative to Van Zandt and Dylan as a country-folk songwriter.

  9. SDM says:

    I’ll add: Mary Chapin Carpenter. Carl Perkins. Neil Young’s late-period album “Silver & Gold.”

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    My Okie blood tells me that Buck Owens has to be on the list. Some of those “artsy fartsy” country singers there just don’t belong.

    Where’s Conway? Where’s Charlie Pride? You east coast dandies have a weird idea about what country music is. Charles Austin is spot on. He better be from the South or West.

  11. robertl says:

    The dissing of Steve Earle’s singing is clearly a sign of insanity. He is the Springsteen of country music. I’d add Gene Clark to the list. His work with Doug Dillard was a seminal country rock album. The haunting “Gypsy Rider” is one of the great country songs ever written.

  12. Joe R. says:

    You didn’t exactly say it, but it reads like you’re implying that Townes Van Zandt wrote “Dead Flowers”. That’s a Jagger & Richards composition.

  13. DL says:

    I didn’t hear a cry for Slim Whitman’s name, nor Roger Miller’s nor Homer and Jethro nor……

  14. James Joyner says:

    You didn’t exactly say it, but it reads like you’re implying that Townes Van Zandt wrote “Dead Flowers”. That’s a Jagger & Richards composition.

    I was just referring to his singing rendition but, yes, I presumed he wrote it and the Stones version was a cover rather than vice-versa. Certainly, it’s been covered a lot.

  15. James Joyner says:

    I didn’t hear a cry for Slim Whitman’s name, nor Roger Miller’s nor Homer and Jethro nor……

    Slim Whitman, seriously? He’s cornpone even to me and I’ve been listening to the stuff for 40 years. Maybe it’s because I’d never heard of him until he started selling albums on TV in the late 1970s.

    Roger Miller’s actually an interesting choice, though. He’s got some clever lyrics, very smooth vocals, and there’s a humorous appeal to many of his songs.