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.