I know exactly at what moment I tired of irony in my music for good. It was in 2006, at a small festival of acoustic music, and I was watching Hayseed Dixie.
I’d quite enjoyed their album, which consisted of bluegrass-tinged performances of hard rock songs, especially those of AC/DC, and thought for a joke band they were quite fun, but I found their live performance horrifying. While they were quite reasonable musically, their entire act was based around mocking ‘rednecks’ (in other words, working class people), performing in dungarees and essentially acting like Cletus from The Simpsons.
This wouldn’t have been so bad had I not seen the Del McCoury band earlier that day. Del McCoury is one of the bluegrass greats, and one of the two or three people who originated the type of music they were mocking, and the difference in the performance was staggering. The Del McCoury band were polite, well-spoken (with strong Kentucky accents, but still well-spoken), dressed in very formal suits, and very disciplined and dignified. It was rather like watching Paul Robeson and then seeing a blackface minstrel show immediately afterwards, and it left me feeling rather soiled – Hayseed Dixie weren’t even a caricature, they were a caricature of an inaccurate stereotype.
Luckily, McCoury himself gave a much better performance, and gained at least one fan that day, and since then I’ve picked up a couple of his albums, of which my favourite is Del and the Boys.
I know many people automatically dismiss country music – and with good reason, as anything that has appeared on US country radio for at least 35 years is the worst kind of pabulum. I’d rather be boiled alive in a vat of my own excrement than ever listen to an album by Shania Twain or Doug Supernaw or their ilk. But real country music – the tradition that runs from Jimmie Rogers through Hank Williams and Bill Monroe to Johnny Cash to Steve Earle, the anti-authoritarian, blues-based, folk music of the rural poor – that music is as good as anything out there. (Jon Swift recently posted a satirical ‘handy guide to pro- and anti-American things’ which had Hank Williams Sr in the anti-American column and Hank Jr in pro-American. That pretty much sums it up).
The Del McCoury band are a family – McCoury and two of his sons make up three-quarters of the band – and they stick very much to ‘traditional’ bluegrass (traditional in quotes because the form is only about 60 years old). The line-up has no rhythm section, consisting of guitar, mandolin, banjo and violin, and the harmonies (which are superb) are all high, keening bluegrass harmonies. But within that traditional sound, there’s a wealth of different possibilities which the band remain open to.
The first song on the album is a testament to that – a cover of Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning with Thompson’s rippling guitar arpeggios turned into furious mandolin picking. The song’s done entirely straight (apart from changing the destination to which ‘they did ride’ from Box Hill to Knoxville), and it’s an adventurous choice for a country band, but it works perfectly in this style.
Much of the album’s subject matter is more traditional country-music fare – it’s bad when your dad’s dead, it’s also bad when the woman you love cheats on you, it’s not much good when you’re alone and heartbroken, it’s lonesome when you’re far away from Kentucky and that bluegrass home of yours, and Jesus is better than a life of sin and debauchery. But the difference is that unlike much commercial country music, these songs don’t appear to have been written in order to appeal to a demographic, but from the heart.
The religious songs, for example, aren’t the insipid pap memorably parodied in South Park’s last funny episode a few years back (“I want you Jesus, baby/Why you cryin’ Jesus baby?”) but are very strong songs. All Aboard is a blazingly fast, almost screamed, exhortation, a combination of those two country music staples the gospel song and the train song (“And the train keeps rollin’/And the world keeps turning/All aboard/everybody’s gotta get on board”).
The strongest song by far on the album though is another of the religious songs, Recovering Pharisee. This song is almost unique in American popular Christian music (at least that I’ve heard – it’s far from my favourite genre, as you might imagine) in actually dealing with the hypocrisy of the singer:
I’m a Pharisee in recovery
With new eyes I can see the great sinner in me
It’s the way of my human heart to confess other people’s sins
Reluctant to accept my part and the deeper problem within
Whether you agree with American revivalist religion or not – and I don’t think anyone will be hugely surprised that I don’t – it’s encouraging to hear someone trying intelligently to deal with the idea of failing to live up to their own moral standards, rather than just judging other people.
The highlight of the album is probably the instrumental Goldbrickin’, which is a roaringly fast showcase for the band’s picking and fiddling skills, and without the vocals it’s apparent how close this music is to traditional English folk music – that track could easily be on an album by Waterson: Carthy or a similar trad-folk band.
This music is definitely traditional country music, and definitely deals with traditional country-song concerns, but it’s from the heart, and played by musicians with tremendous skill and enthusiasm, and I can recommend the album to absolutely everyone.