Fork me on GitHub

Country music for people who don't like country music

Yesterday, I was discussing music with one of my friends. as you might expect from a friend, we agree about many bands, and disagree on some others. I will leave aside, for the moment, the matter of his apostasy with respect to the Rolling Stones. It came to pass, as it so often does, that he commented that he does not like country music. I can accept that – Sturgeon's Law applies in all cases – but I tried to make the point that there is a world of difference between modern Nashville country music and, say, the work of James McMurtry. He then suggested that the burden of proof lies with me. That's what I get for opening my mouth.

So, here are some songs that I think represent the genre well and may appeal to people who don't usually listen to country. Note that I'm on an airplane right now, so links will be conspicuously absent from this post for now. I intend to add links to YouTube eventually, but I'm not sure when that will be... 01/20/2014: Song titles are now linked to YouTube.

There's not going to be any Johnny Cash on this list. That's not a matter of esthetics, it's a matter of practicality. If you don't already like his music I can't help you. I recommend you seek counseling from a priest, because you have no soul. The order of songs in the list is completely arbitrary and doed not reflect any ranking scheme.

  • "Levelland", Where'd You Hide the Body, James McMurtry: It's best to say this right at the start: James McMurtry's music is often very political, and he's a liberal. That's unusual enough in the world of country music to be worth comment. So, if you don't like politics with your music you should probably skip a bit. "Levelland" is a scathing portrait of rural American written from the perspective of a refugee. The piture he paints is not a kind one, but for every person who loves drinking beer in his truck down by the river there's another who couldn't wait to put the town in their rearview mirror.
  • "AFL-CIO", Far Away Blues, Adam Carroll: Adam Carroll is a singer-songwriter from east Texas, and he's quite skilled at creating very vivid images. "AFL-CIO" is a fun little song about a group of people who come together to play music at the union hall. Just leave your dobro at home. Note: the linked video is a live version of the song.
  • "Jackson", Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams: One of the more famous themes in country music is that of loss, and the resulting loneliness. This is the classic "she left me" song told from her perspective, and Lucinda's voice is perfect for the song. Rather than a song of righteous anger and vindication, it's a story of regret and sorrow. Pairs well with Knob Creek. Also, dobro solo. The Tom Petty-penned "Changed the Locks" is another excellent option, but the live version is so much better than the studio track that I went with "Jackson" instead. This song is one of the reasons that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won a Grammy,
  • "Record Lady", I Love Everybody, Lyle Lovett: Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen (name-checked in this song) are two sides of the same coin. They were roommates at Texas A&M, and both have enjoyed considerable success in the music business. While at first appearances Robert Earl is the loud, garrulous one, and Lyle the quiet, introspective one, they share a wickedly subversive sense of humor. Lyle often takes well-knowm scenarios – in this case, affection for a pretty girl in a shop – and turns them on their ears. The stories rarely unfold or end in ways you expect them to, and that's what makes Lyle worth listening to. Note: the linked video is to a live performance in which Lyle talks about the origins of the song.
  • "Poor Old Dirt Farmer", Dirt Farmer, Levon Helm: I almost said the hell with it and put "Up on Cripple Creek" on this list. Wait, what? Not "The Weight"? No, Jesus, it's not particuarly country, but that electric organ break belongs on basically every list of great musical things ever. This is a fun little waltz about the misfortunes that befall the poor farmer of the title, and the fiddle part sounds about as Cajun as Mamou, which is lagniappe. My kids love this one.
  • "Drunken Poet's Dream", Trouble in Mind, Hayes Carll: This song describes the kind of woman that most men think they want to have ("I got a woman, she's wild as Rome/Ah, she likes to lay naked and be gazed upon"), the kind of lover who sings, "You be the sinner, honey, I'll be the sin". We're left without resolution, though, because Carll doesn't tell us how the story ends. If you like this song, I recommend as a companion Lucinda William's "Right in Time", which is a little slower, but tells a somewhat similar story from the woman's point-of- view. Note: The linked video is to a live version. The album version is more rock 'n' roll.
  • "The Road Goes on Forever", West Textures, Robert Earl Keen: This classic tale of two born losers who fall in love with tragic consequences is probably Robert Earl's most famous song. It's a great of about people who make one terrible decision after another. I prefer this to the live version on Gravitational Forces because the fiddle breaks are better in the studio version.
  • "Back to Bayou Teche", Outward Bound, Sonny Landreth: Great contemporary Louisiana music, great guitar tone. You could probably make a decent argument that this is as much rock as country, but it's my list. I never dated a girl from Bayou Teche, but anyone who's had to leave a warm bed to travel far from their lover can relate to this. In the linked video, Landreth bears a passing resemblance to a young Geddy Lee.
  • "Bread & Water", Mescalito, Ryan Bingham: This is a loud, racuous song about, among other things, eating jambalaya and crawfish pie in Whiskey Landing, which should be a dream of every travelling man. It's reminiscent of "Led Zeppelin;s "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" in the best possible way.
  • "Copperhead Road", Ain't Ever Satisfied, Steve Earle: This is one of Steve's most popular songs, and it tells the story of a man who is inspired by his father's and grandfather's exploits as moonshiners to get into the marijuana business. Honestly, it's tough to pick just one Steve Earle song. I strongly considered the very-NSFW "F the CC" from The Revolution Starts Nowm but decided I didn't want make this too political. "Johnny Come Lately" also easily could have made the list. Steve's also done two excellent duets with Emmylou Harris, "I Remember You" and "Coming Around", I don't really know why the linked video looks like something that Warrant would have done except to say that it was the 80s.
  • "Red Dirt Girl", Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris: The best country songs, in my opinion, are those that tell stories.This heart-wrenching story about the life of a poor Alabama girl who dreams of escaping her home is a great example of powerful storytelling in a country song with the use of cliches.
  • "Travelin' Soldier", Long Way Home from Anywhere, Bruce Robison: Most people who know this song, about a young girl who falls in love with a soldier who comes into the diner in which she works, have heard the version recorded by (IIRC, I'm on a plane with no Internet) the Dixie Chicks. The story ends tragically, and I find this version by the songwriter to be more moving.
  • "Give it Away", It Just Comes Natural, George Strait: Look, you can't make a list of good country songs with there being at least one heartbreaking divorce song. Some people might prefer to go with Randy Travis's "Diggin' Up Bones", but I think that's a mistake. Don't feel too sorry for ol' George, he has plenty of songs where he gets the girl.
  • "Maybe It Was Memphis", Put Yourself in My Place, Pam Tillis: I'm pretty sure that this is the exact kind of pop country that my friend does not want to listen to, but I have a soft spot for this song. And Garth Brooks's "Callin' Baton Rouge", but let's try and keep this from getting too carried away, This story of a one-night-stand is about 1,000,000 times better than that atrocity Heart committed in the eighties.
  • "Red Staggerwing", All the Roadrunning, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris: I would listen to Emmylou Harris sing the telephone book (if you're younger than 30, ask your mom or dad what that is), and, well, what can you say about Mark Knopfler? This duet, in which a man and woman describe their passionfor one another, is energetic and fun. Highly recommended.
  • "Jackson", Johnny Cash, The Essential Johnny Cash: Okay, I lied about Johnny Cash, so sue me. :-) There's literally no way that you can listen to this song and hate. This is my favorite song from his work, and that includes "One Piece at a Time", Let me tell you, brother, you may think that you and your wife have problems, but you're not even in the same ZIP code as trouble. Poor Johnny, on the other hand...

Well, there you are. Opinions are evn cheaper on the Internet than they are real life, so feel free to disagree with me. But if you do, why not make your own list and share it so that we have something argue about? ;-)