Thursday, June 07, 2007

SIRIUS Problems


As part of Dish Network, I have access to many of Sirius satellite radio's music stations. This allows a variety of music to come across the television. In many ways, this is a beneficial thing. I became acquainted with the likes of Charline Arthur and Dale Watson on those stations. One problem, however, is in the programming of music on the country music channels.

First, Sirius' "Classic" Country channel is missing something; namely, classic country. Their definition of "classic country" is mostly 80s stuff by Kenny Rogers or 70s songs by Crystal Gayle. Try hearing some Hank Williams on that channel. If you call and ask for Hank Williams, they'll probably play "A Country Boy Can Survive," assuming you meant Hank Williams, Jr.

Worse, though, is the "Outlaw Country" channel. This "country" channel features Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Hiatt, and Molly Hatchet.

I grew up in the 70s. Furthermore, I was stationed in Jacksonville (home of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and where founding member Ronnie Van Zant is buried). I never ever heard them (or their second generation southern rock cousins Molly Hatchet, who also hail from Jacksonville) referred to as "country." Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded "Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas)" on One More From the Road and a Merle Haggard song ("I Know a Little") on Street Survivors. That doesn't make them "country," anymore than George Thorogood's rocking rampage on Hank Williams' "Move It on Over" makes "the Delaware Destroyers" "country" or R.E.M. called "country" because they did a falling-down-drunk rendition of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" (which, by their own admission, was so bad "Roger Miller should sue us"). Ernest Tubb recorded Billy Bland's "Let the Little Girl Dance" (and it was the B side of Tubb's version of Connie Francis' song "Everybody's Somebody's Fool"), and among Sonny James' numerous hits were covers of Ivory Joe Hunter tunes ("Since I Met You Baby," "Empty Arms"). However, that doesn't make them R&B singers. Alison Krauss recorded Bad Company's "Oh Atlanta" on Now That I've Found You. That neither makes Krauss FM rock nor Bad Company bluegrass.

At the 24th annual International Country Music Conference last month, Dr. Patrick Huber presented a paper discussing what the true "first country recording" was (the historical consensus gives that honor to Eck Robertson's 78 "Arkansaw Traveler" / "Sallie Gooden" from 1922). He pointed out that a recording of "Turkey in the Straw" dated to 1892 and could be considered the "first country recording." Rather, Dr. Huber argued, the argument might be better answered by seeing what the people of that era considered "country."

I don't totally agree with that position. After all, the first #1 song on Billboard magazine's "Hillbilly and Western Singles" chart when the chart debuted in 1944 was by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (their rendition of Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama" -- the Dexter recording was the second #1 single on the charts). Among the country legends with songs that have topped the charts you will also find such decidedly un-country names as Louis Jordan (who had two #1 hits), Nat "King" Cole (Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)" took over the #1 position from the King Cole Trio's "Straighten Up and Fly Right"), and Lawrence Welk (his version of Spade Cooley's best-known song, "Shame On You," was #1 in 1945). According to Dr. Huber's argument, we must call these artists "country" because the country chart said they were in 1944.

However, these artists never considered themselves "country," and the majority of their fame was not found on the country charts. Lawrence Welk might have "a-one and a-two'd" accordion renditions of country songs on his long-running television show, but he never made an argument that he was "country." Tom Jones made the country chart with "Green Green Grass of Home" and "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow," but those were "left-field hits," not songs from a bona fide country singers. Certainly Jones or Welk never dominated the country charts for a year the way Eddy Arnold did in 1948 (there were seven songs to hit #1 that year, six of which were by Mr. Arnold).

Why, then, are those in modern country (artists and outlets such as Sirius) so quick to label as "country" things that, 30 years ago, were staunchly and unashamedly labeled "rock and roll?" It is obvious that modern country artists have grown up in an era of rock and roll and have been influenced by it. There isn't necessarily something "bad" in blending various styles: after all, this thing called "rock and roll" came about when country, rhythm and blues, and gospel were thrown in the proverbial melting pot together. There was, however, a difference: it was considered a new genre. No one then tried to sell that new phenomenon as "country" or "race records." They coined a new term for it (courtesy of Alan Freed).

Or, as Charlie Louvin said, "I'm just country. Let them come up with a new label for their music." Well put. If you pay money for a movie that is classified a "comedy" and you discover instead it's a horror film, you'll be upset. Let's call the music what it is. Ronnie Van Zant was never ashamed to be called a rock and roll singer, so why should the fans of the band he founded try to label him something different, 30 years after his death?

1 comment:

Robert said...

Marshall Fallwell wrote an article about the origin of Country Music, in The Country Music Magazine April, 1974. Quoted from the article... the Great Ernest Tubbs; Mr. Tubb said, "Hillbilly, that's what the press use to call it, Hillbilly Music." Now, I always said, "You can call me a hillbilly if you got a smile on your face." We let the record companies know that they were producing country music 'cause we all come from the country. So sometime in the fifties, one of the record conpanies labels a record "country music" - I would consider that date to be the official separation from old-timer or hillbilly music.