COWBOY POETS: Album reviews from HQ, 1999
‘JOHNNY CASH DIES’: It’s a headline that some of us, with more than a tinge of sadness, have been dreading to see for some time now. Johhny Cash is one of the great men of modern music - not just country music but all modern music - and his final passing will mark the end of an era, even though some of his erstwhile partners in crime, like Willie Nelson, seem like the road itself, as if they could go on forever ...
Post-war Western popular music, an incredibly rich culture, will always be associated with two things - the electric guitar and vinyl records. If rock’n’roll itself was begat by hopped-up hillbillies, Johnny Cash is one of the last remaining links to the first generation. Sure, Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive - his 1995 Sire CD Young Blood was actually quite excellent - but he doesn’t cast the shadow Johnny Cash does. Johnny Cash was the first modern outlaw, when the seventies’ outlaw movement, the progenitor of all today’s alt.country, was really just a case of good old boys going through the sixties, growing their hair, getting rock-style production and taking increasingly harder drugs.
It was the actual death a few years ago of the great Townes Van Zandt (a man who could fetchingly slide off his stool mid-song) that first got me thinking, fearing, that the days of these modern cowboy poets are now seriously numbered, like wild mustangs in the age of steam: But then this taming at the hands of the modern world was always a theme of Hollywood Westerns, right up to The Last Picture Show, and it’s still a theme for the surviving voices of an older, dustier America. Those voices now seem more distant, less urgent, and as a genre, the literate country singer-songwriter is surviving into a new millenium only by undergoing a transformation. (If you think the words ‘literate country’ are oxymoronic, then you may as well take your prejudices and leave now. To those of us who know the truth, it’s these cowboy poets who tend to be Texan - as well as the above-named, the likes of Guy Clark, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore - who have been among the finest of all singer-songwriters over the last couple of decades.)
The first transformation is that the men have been overtaken by women. Country music has always been equally a woman’s medium, and recently, whether Lucinda Williams or k.d.lang or Australia’s own Kasey Chambers and Lisa Miller, women have stolen the thunder from their brothers; today, only Steve Earle, as a new force, is as vital and compelling.
Following Dylan’s lead singer-songwriters rose out of the folk ghetto in the early seventies, when they stumbled upon a grown-up rock audience. The deification of the singer-songwriter crossed-over with the emergence of country-rock. Crossing the divide from the other direction, ‘outlaw country’ marked a shift from Nashville to Austin, Texas. After that, the frontiers start to become blurry (pick up a bit of punk along the way and you have alt.country). Country-rock is classically portrayed as a single line straight from Gram Parsons to the Eagles, but even then, beyond the outlaws, Texas offered an alternative take, whether Lubbock’s now-legendary Flatlanders or other then-new generation pickers like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
What this Texas mind-set brought to singer-songwriterdom was, it seemed, a more genuinely poetic streak, and certainly a greater sense of humour. The cowboy poets are the personification of the idea ‘strong but silent’; they give voice to what’s still a male archetype, and reveal, inevitably, that they are as vulnerable as most of us. Nostalgia is a common theme, but then genuine tragedy an equally common occurence. And while it’s true no-one does drinking songs and homoerotic buddy songs like these guys (often the same thing), no-one writes love songs like ’em either. We know Guy Clark’s wife Susanna because we’ve heard him sing of her so much.
Laughs too have always been important to country songs, with their wordplays and rollicking narratives, and these guys are certainly distinguished from the run of the self-obsessed West Coast soft-rockers by a sense of humour drier than Death Valley - and a sense of proportion perhaps born of life on the old prairie. Self-deprecation is sadly still too rare in ‘serious’ songwriting, irony too often taken for easy humour; try wry, and sardonic, although never cynical.
On Cold Dog Soup (Sugar Hill), Guy Clark covers ‘Fort Worth Blues’, Steve Earle’s tribute to their mutual friend, the late Townes Van Zandt, and it’s a highlight of an album that’s perplexingly muted. Time was when a new Guy Clark album was an event, which would ‘shine like diamonds’, but since his 1988 comeback album Old Friends, his output has grown in volume but waned in pitch. It’s a malaise that blights Jimmie Dale Gilmore somewhat too; the former Flatlander’s new Buddy Miller-produced album One Endless Night (Rounder) has all the requisite qualities you expect from a Jimmie Dale Gilmore album - above all, one of the most mournfully beautiful voices ever in country music - but something about it leaves me a little left out. But then I ask myself, is it them or me? Certainly I ‘bonded’ with both these artists over their early work - but I can’t help feeling there’s an edge and a magic missing, or rather only occasionally touched on by these two discs.
Since Steve Young (not a Texan) hasn’t seemed to enjoy even the modicum of recognition a Guy or Jimmie Dale has, I wonder if it’s because he’s still got that hunger that he’s still making virulent records. In common with Townes and Jimmie Dale, Young has native American blood and a bent towards eastern spirituality; in common with Townes and Guy, he was lost on Nashville’s music row in the seventies, trying to sell his songs. But Young actually stretches even further back, to 1969, when he was a labelmate of Gram Parsons at A&M and he produced the unsung proto-country-rock classic Rock Salt & Nails. Primal Young (Shock) is a journey into Young’s musical past, growing up in the Appalachian foothills; by going so far back, tapping a Celtic vein (even covering contemporary Scots folkie, Dick Goughan), Young pushes further forward, creating a strange brew of an album but one that to me is quite intoxicating. My favourite track is a remarkable, lazy acoustic version of ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, of all things.
It’s as if the music has to go to all the greater extremes to continue to find sustinance, to stay alive. Indeed, Primal Young is extraordinary, further, as an album actually generated in Australia, and subsequently released in America. Maybe we do have a direct connection with this particular spirit. Certainly, the second solo disc from Bad Seeds pianist Conway Savage, Nothing Broken (Control), picks up on it. I suggested to a friend with good ears that it reminded me of Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger, which was to country music what Sketches of Spain was to jazz. Not possible, my friend simply shook his head. But Savage plays slower, softer and sadder than anyone else dares - he even dares to offer desolate instrumentals - and even though it occasionally trips over its own tail, Nothing Broken has a stark originality that’s very welcome and quite affecting.
Of course, the circle will be unbroken: Johnny Cash, still alive and, well, well enough to go back into the studio, is reportedly recording a version of Savage’s boss Nick Cave’s death row epic ‘The Mercy Seat’. Maybe, in the same way the rest of the world has stolen pop’s initiative from America (viz., European dance music), country too returns to its source for renewal. Irish bard Bap Kennedy’s Domestic Blues album of 1998, produced by none other than Steve Earle, was a completely respectable debut if in the slipstream of the great man behind the desk. His new CD Lonely Street (Dressed-To-Kill) marks a quantum leap. Kennedy is the best new songwriter I’ve heard since Ron Sexsmith; Lonely Street is almost as good as Nick Lowe’s Dig My Mood, and the few who know that album by Johnny Cash’s English son-in-law adore it and should know that this is high praise indeed. I’m always attracted to CDs that have maybe eleven or twelve tracks and clock in under forty minutes. Guy Clark albums are always like that - the true cowboy poet never uses any more words than he has to - and so is Lonely Street, as was Dig My Mood. Lonely Street was inspired by and is very much about ‘Hank and Elvis’, but it could be about anyone, even Bap Kennedy, such is the extraordinarily bold simplicity of its songs.
Like Dig My Mood, Lonely Street is chamber country-pop of the prettiest, truest order, and its echoes linger sweet and long after the metaphorical run-out groove has been reached, marking a promising possibilty for the future pale riders of a new age.