Monday, September 2, 2013

Review, part 1: A short history of country music

Joy Williams and John Paul White of the Civil Wars (from NPR)

Last month, the Civil Wars eponymously titled 2nd album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 album chart (though it dropped relatively quickly). I can't stand a lot of country music (unless Sting writes it), but I've recently starting following this duo after hearing their Grammy-winning collaboration with Taylor Swift, "Safe and Sound." So what sets the Civil Wars (and Taylor Swift, for that matter, at least earlier Taylor Swift) apart from the rest, but keeps them classified as country?

Boot Scootin' Boogie Back In Time

In order to answer that question, I'm going to have to step back and explain where country music came from. What we now call country music originates in the rural southeast U.S in the 1920s. It was originally marketed as "Hillbilly" music, a label meant to be sensational and derogatory. Eventually, the genre merged with Texan Honky-Tonk and was rebranded "Country and Western" in the 1930s and 40s, and then became just "Country." While the performers were often authentic, especially in the beginning, the music, its presentation and marketing were manufactured, controlled, and contrived by big record labels. The music itself also became more contrived, as more and more performers relied on songwriters who could take the authentic-sounding parts and rework and repackage them into something for mass appeal. Just think of the sparkling mock-cowboy suits that performers wore in the 40s and 50s. Why did they wear that weird getup, which no real cowboy in their right mind would don?

The answer to these outfits comes back to what sets country music apart from other genres. While answering this is very complex, I'll try and boil it down to a few things: 

  • a working class point of view (often with a twang for "authenticity") portrayed by charismatic performers, 
  • an emphasis on narrative, 
  • Some musical shorthands (fiddles, harmonica, banjo, hoopla) built on a popular songwriting foundation. 
There are a few other, more complicated musical cues for country-ness: harmonies higher than the solo voice and certain styles of instrumental playing I don't have time to get into (how hawaiian guitar came to symbolize country music, we'll never really know). Cowboy hats can be important, too, but those are also a signal of "authenticity." For more about the development of country music, you can read Country Music: a Cultural and Stylistic History, by Jocelyn Neal.

Back to the 1860s

So, back to the present. As I said above, country music is mostly about performers. The songs, for the most part, are written by other people and plugged to perfumers. In the Civil Wars (and Taylor Swift, for that matter), however, you've got a songwriting team that also performs their music. While in their own music they are still acting out parts, singing their own music does bring some more authenticity to the table, for me at least. They are more explicitly choosing what they want to present. 

The Civil Wars also gain more on my authenticity meter in what they choose to wear. Taylor Swift wears whatever she wants; the Civil Wars, on the other hand, have a costume, but instead of cowboy hat and jeans, they wear  pseudo-19th-century gentleman and lady outfits that match their name. While this choice is still a little contrived, the fact that they are choosing their style instead of just running with the trend is important. While the look still comes out of the rural Southeast U.S., it doesn't really fit the working-class stereotype, either. It's like they are trying to step back and say "This is where this country music comes from," which I like, even if their version is also a construction.

I Want (19th-Century Rural America) Back

Musically, the Civil Wars also choose their own style. They are certainly rooted in country, with their instrumentation, guitar-styling and vocal harmonies. In their first album, Barton Hollow, many of their songs follow country music formula structures. However, Joy and John Paul's voices don't have the characteristic twang (which always was annoying to me), and the harmonies and pairing are more complex and subtle. And some of their songs, the best ones, depart from common country music structures.

I think the best way to illustrate the Civil Wars' music is from a bonus track from Barton Hollow. It's a cover of the Jackson 5's  "I Want You Back," and is possibly the best thing ever:

This is not an ironic cover—they are really thinking about the meaning of the lyric, pulling into their own time (which might be back in time?). The vocal harmonies are complex, the guitar is complicated and interesting (the guitar doubling in the chorus is my favorite part). At the same time, it is acoustic, features the high vocal harmony, sounds authentic, and the trimmed ensemble actually emphasizes the narrative storytelling more, all things that are often associated with country.

That's enough for this week. Next week, I'll finally get to my review the Civil Wars' new album.

What do you think about country music? How about pseudo-country music?

Vocab: eponymous, cover, doubling, twang

No comments:

Post a Comment