The 1970 film Five Easy Pieces is generally held to be among the best of the classic 70s period of Hollywood cinema. It tells of an oil rig worker, Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), who comes from a privileged, classical music-playing family, from which he has tried to escape. He travels home when he learns that his father is dying, reluctantly taking along his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black). Finding no sense of belonging, he abandons Rayette at a gas station, hitching a ride to somewhere cold.
Watching Five Easy Pieces again it feels a bit of a period piece with its focus on the uprooted, disillusioned male. Nowadays we might prefer the film to stay at the gas station and see what happens to Rayette. She and Nicholson are represented by their opposing musical identities. He is a one-time piano prodigy; she dreams of being a country music star. The five easy pieces are both classical music studies (of which Dupea feels that he can now only play the easiest) and the ballads of Tammy Wynette that share equal honours on the soundtrack.
The film explores how things are never so easy as those pieces might suggest. So it is that the plaintive country hymns of Wynette both mask and expose life’s hard realities (“But if you love him you’ll forgive him / Even though he’s hard to understand / And if you love him, be proud of him / ‘Cause after all he’s just a man”). Country music has been frequently used in this way by the movies: a seemingly simple art form that reveals complexity through its denial that such complexities exist.
This is how country music is treated in Robert Altman’s epic Nashville (1975), a state-of-the-nation piece seen through the prism of a few days in Nashville during a political convention. Here Karen Black plays country singing star Connie White (so that’s what happened to Rayette). However, the film still trades on the idea of the hopeless dream of fame in not one but two deluded women, the wretched Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) and the more forceful Winifred (Barbara Harris), who through accident ends up singing the film’s climactic ‘It Don’t Worry Me’ (when very clearly all that we have seen worries everyone).
The star attraction, though, is Barbara Jean, powerfully played by real-life singer Ronee Blakley, and based on Loretta Lynn. Jean’s homely songs of certainties and success in overcoming life’s tribulations are cruelly undermined by the very public nervous breakdown that she suffers. This comes just after she has performed the film’s musical highlight, ‘Dues’, in which finally the heartache is admitted, and the power and honesty of the music is acknowledged.
Nashville did not like Nashville. It didn’t like the satire, the sense that country music offered façade, that the surface was only the surface. The film seemed to question the music’s sincerity. It didn’t help that a song like ‘Dues’ turned the satire back on itself and showed beneath the surface there was honesty after all. It should not have been necessary to pose the question in the first place. Country music should be easy.
You can play a game of trying to sum up a music genre in one word. The blues is sorrow. Soul is uplift. Reggae is rebellion. Rock’n’roll is lust. Country is sentiment. Easy too, but chiefly sentiment, as in the dictionary definition of ‘thought tinged with emotion’. Country music is an amalgam of southern USA musical styles, with roots in folk, blues and gospel, and with offshoots as broad as bluegrass, zydeco, rockabilly and country rap. Its structure owes much to ballad form, with a strong emphasis on narrative and personal journey. Its rise and fall of emotion is most characteristically echoed in the sliding tones of the pedal steel guitar. It has evolved and mutated over decades, currently into a mainstream form that seems little different to pop. It’s a long journey that takes you from the Carter Family to Taylor Swift. But throughout there has remained a core identifier, that the familiar vocal and instrumental stylings serve to highlight, which is a faith in sentiment. It is music from the heart, which asserts that dreams have come true, that things are what we want to see in the mirror.
I’m looking at music genres, and having investigated the blues, it’s now the turn of country. Country music is hugely diverse, perhaps more of a collection of interconnected genres that a single entity, though they all get lumped together in record shops (the few that still exist, that is). It conforms to the rule of a genre that it should be specific to a time, a place and a people. That time was the mid- to late-twentieth century, the place was the south, and the people were Southern whites. Early forms of country existed before that date, and recognisable forms continue today; the music can be played anywhere but always has its heart in the southern states; and though there have been black country stars (Charley Pride most notably) and there is a close affiliation with gospel (as Nashville documents) it is fundamentally white music. It subsists on sentiment, not soul.
My taste in country tends towards the fringes. I’ve never been much of a one for those songs where we learn that Momma and Poppa had to work so hard, or where the Stetson-wearing singer tells that he was once and is probably still an outlaw, even if it turns out that their parents really did have to work that hard, or that mock cowboy has actually done his time in jail. Instead I like it when the music veers into other territories, where the performers rebel against its dictates while still being drawn to the centre.
The ten favourites below are a diverse bunch, but they are all songs of feeling. They have the sound of country, and the heart too. As before, they are a top ten, not the top ten, and are in reverse order for fun – though the number one selection would be at the top on any day.
10. Faron Young, ‘It’s Four in the Morning’ (1971)
This is the first country song that I can remember, so it’s here for nostalgic reasons and because it is still playing in my head over forty years later. It was a surprise hit in the UK in 1972, one of those rare occasions went country broke through to the general UK consciousness. It’s a well-nigh faultless piece of country pop, with a gentle waltz beat, a melody that develops in a beguiling manner, and a lyric that neatly focusses the singer’s feeling of loss around the concept in the title (“It’s four in the morning / And once more the dawning / Just woke up the wanting in me”). Troubled country pin-up Young shot himself in 1996, supposedly because he felt abandoned by a music world that had moved beyond him.
9. Mike Nesmith and the First National Band, ‘Silver Moon’ (1970)
When he hasn’t been busy being a Monkee, a songwriter, a pop video pioneer (he helped establish MTV), a film producer (Repo Man) or just enjoying an inherited fortune (his typist mother invented liquid paper) Mike Nesmith has been a great country rock musician. He used to slip in country songs into the Monkees’ repertoire (‘Papa Gene’s Blues‘, for instance), then went solo with a succession of imaginative, slightly portentous, country-flavoured albums that never quite gained the acclaim or the popularity they deserved (one of his best albums is sarcastically entitled And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’). ‘Silver Moon’ is another nostalgic choice – it was played regularly on Radio Caroline in the 1970s, and I’ve always felt uplifted by it. Plus it has terrific steel guitar from Nesmith’s regular accompanist O.J. ‘Red’ Rhodes.
8. Ronee Blakley, ‘Dues’ (1975)
Though Keith Carradine’s ‘I’m Easy’ is the most celebrated song from Nashville, winning an Academy Award, Ronee Blakley’s ‘Dues’ supplies the film’s emotional core. Starting modestly with a gentle waltz beat, it gradually builds up the orchestration and the emotion, as Blakley fights between elation and despair. It is as good a musical expression of a crisis of the heart as you could expect to hear, though you really do have to see it, and where it comes in the film, to appreciate it fully. It’s a performance to convert any country sceptic.
7. Bob Dylan, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (1967)
The older Bob Dylan fans gets, the more they may come round to the realisation that maybe his 1969 country album Nashville Skyline, originally much maligned, is among his best. You finally see the value in celebrating contentment. Great as Nashville Skyline is, Dylan’s best country moment is in an earlier album, John Wesley Harding. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is a fine song in its own right, but gains extra resonance coming at the end of a record filled with mysterious tales of existential threat and impending doom. It’s the repeated reference to fear in the song (“Shut the light, shut the shade / You don’t have to be afraid / I’ll be your baby tonight”) that makes it rather less comforting than the sunny numbers of the later record. Outside, you sense, the wind has begun to howl.
6. Lambchop, ‘Begin’ (1994)
Lambchop hail from Nashville, but they are unlikely ever to play the Grand Ole Opry. The band, mostly a front for the visionary Kurt Wagner, specialises in disquieting numbers variously described as post-rock, post-modernist or alt-country. The country elements are at their most apparent in their earliest records, such as this from their first album, a gentle, hypnotic song about the tentative start to a romance. Accompanied by tinkling mandolin and sighing steel guitar, Wagner’s quiet vocals makes the mundane details of the song somehow rich in significance, which may be the most country thing about it.
5. Iris DeMent, ‘Our Town’ (1992)
Iris DeMent’s voice grabs you instantly with its Southern bittersweetness. ‘Our Town’ is a quietly powerful exercise in nostalgia, sung to the most beguiling of melodies, in which the singer revisits the town of her youth and says goodbye to what is lost. It makes her story anyone’s story, and is quite heartbreaking.
4. Bill Frisell, ‘Family’ (1997)
Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s album Nashville (recorded in Nashville) is a collection of country-inspired songs and instrumentals. It is one of his most satisfying works, the music suiting his languid, less-is-more style. His approach is entirely respectful while being wholly distinctive; familiar, yet unlike any other country music you will have heard. ‘Family’, an instrumental, has such sweetness and such wistful charm about it.
3. The Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘Sin City’ (1969)
What to pick from the brief but brilliant career of country rock’s greatest advocate, Gram Parsons? Though the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Parsons’s two solo albums (with Emmylou Harris) are filled with gems, I have to go with the Flying Burritos Brothers, the band he formed with Chris Hillman between the Byrds and the solo work. Their first album, the magnificently-titled The Gilded Palace of Sin, is a mixture of country, rock and psychedelia, giddy with bold ideas. This sweet but deadly number is the highlight. Its warnings of a retribution to come now seem eerily prophetic, if one thinks of a certain president residing in his tower (“On the thirty-first floor / Your gold-plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain”).
2. Kinky Friedman, ‘Circus of Life’ (2018)
Kinky Friedman lives to the left side of country. As much a satirist as a musician, he is best known for songs that play on his Jewish inheritance, challenging stereotypes with near-to-the-knuckle humour – among his best known songs is ‘They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’. He also has a taste for the sentimental and the reflective, which comes to the fore in his latest album with its haunting title song. As the musicians of the rock era have got older (Friedman is 74), so those who aren’t just trading of the glories of their youth have given us some remarkable songs reflecting on age and the closing of a life, such as the popular song has never had before. This number tells of a romance that never quite happened, yet still ended tragically. It is told with such economy, knowing the power of a few words to set the scene and let our minds do the rest. “She went to the ballet / And although she didn’t stay / The dancers kept on dancing in her head”. The song of the year, to my mind.
1. Poco, ‘Rose of Cimarron’ (1976)
This is a Frederic Remington painting come to life. Poco were a country rock band that never quite got their act together (never quite became the Eagles, that is), except for this extraordinary seven minutes of absolute inspiration. It expresses the Western fantasy to perfection, mingling hope and regret as the song builds up to its triumphal conclusion, all of it touched with a sentiment expertly applied. There is no other song quite like it, and only the original, and not the shortened single or any of the several live or cover versions, will do. Sadly it’s not on Spotify, so a ripped copy on YouTube must suffice. Listen, and dream.
It wasn’t easy choosing only ten, with John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Son Volt, Gillian Welch, Trampled by Turtles (honest, they are a great band), Jerry Lee Lewis, Townes Van Zandt and even Tammy Wynette just missing the cut. They are all gathered together in this playlist; five hours of country music in all its rich diversity yet consistent spirit.