My father was a student of music, an American singer, raised on The Methodist Hymnal, trained in opera, a devotee of western swing and hillbilly boogie–and a cat who knew the difference between the two. He had an unerring, instinctive talent for recognizing genres; a little-known aspect of his musical education that grew into somewhat of a personal penchant as he grew older, and one I grew to respect enormously.
Particularly as it related to country music.
Ernie Ford was not a country singer. He was a singer, period. But he was a singer who understood musically, culturally, instrumentally and lyrically what made a country song country. From fifty-eight, fifty-nine, through…seventy, maybe, it was one of the principal reasons he gravitated closer to Ken Nelson and what was coming out of Bakersfield, and kept himself distanced professionally from the Music Row establishment for so many years. His close friendships with its architects notwithstanding, he held a private, but deep disdain for The Nashville Sound and saw it as a wholesale sellout to remake country music in pop’s image. Make it relateable. Palatable. Upbeat. Make it relevant.
When the label pushed hard in the early sixties to make him relevant, to make him palatable, to mold him into the whole countrypolitan thing, he pushed back, and in April of sixty-four recorded Country Hits…Feelin’ Blue, a twelve-song set of lonesome, brokenhearted standards from Don Gibson, Jenny Lou Carson, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Frankie Brown and Carl Perkins, cut over ten hours with two cats: Billy Strange on acoustic guitar and John Mosher on upright bass. No overdubs. No harmonies. Maybe two takes. Every song. It was, hands down, the best album of his entire career. By bringing each song back to its most basic elements, unfiltered, uncluttered by unnecessary bullshit and unapologetically blue, Strange, Mosher and Dad unwittingly created a work that is both a musical masterpiece of simplicity and a profoundly moving exploration of sadness.
…A human condition that, along with much more, is profoundly missing from what’s being pawned off as country music today.
I am neither a scholar, a seer or a musician, notwithstanding a handful of years masquerading as the latter. I have no dog in this hunt save for my own opinion, and I’m just bright enough to know that it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn what my opinion is. Others have said much the same; others with voices more learned, more distinguished…more celebrated than mine, voices with the power to be heard far above the din, and even they have come under withering fire. My own voice carries no such influence, and it will be read (if at all) by many who will chalk it up to age, negativity, an unwillingness to accept change…. and the bitter ramblings of a late entertainer’s aging son who’s hoping for some cheap literary controversy.
Take your best shot. Here’s the truth….
There was a time, not all that long ago, when country music mattered; when it mattered as a distinct, singular American art form, and a chronicler of life. There was a time when its poets laureate wove hauntingly true, brilliantly real stories that spoke eloquently on the human condition, and a time when its heralds sang in clear, untutored, compelling voices in the crowded and loud wilderness of popular entertainment.
Today, save for a shrinking handful of artists who still hear its voice, it is, at best, a shadow of itself; an unrecognizable mashup of styles that have so thoroughly diluted the genre, that its very essence is being drained away, its true form and sound–its true identity–lost to an entire generation. Filtered out by labels-full of indistinguishable voices, after-market fiddles, uninspired Van Halen ripoffs, and, save for rare, endangered exceptions, empty, vapid songs that are like the Country Charts equivalent of overused Facebook memes.
Not that all overused Facebook memes are a bad thing. Even in its most lucid, literary days, 16th Avenue produced more than its share of them. But they were almost always the exception to the rule. ‘Achy Breaky Heart‘ was a hit for a lot of reasons, principally because even as recently as ninety-two, it was the balance track; the I don’t want to have to think about anything ‘cept tapping my finger on the rim of the steering wheel and riffing on Billy Ray track in a year of songs that reflected what the greatest country writers and songs had done for decades; held a mirror up to us all. Told us stories that we had all lived through; stories of loss and betrayal. Of sacrifice and redemption. Stories of hope and resolve. Of social injustice and death. Of the unbreakable bond of unconditional love and of hearts broken beyond repair.
These were the songs that held us, that kept us sliding quarters in jukeboxes, made us pull off the road so we could wipe the tears from our eyes. The songs that etched themselves into our hearts and minds and memories. The songs that told the complex truths of who we were in two minute-long stories even the most uncomplicated of us could understand and relate to. They brought us closer together, and showed us our common humanity. They gave us the emotional soundtracks that scored our lives.
If one uses today’s charts as a yardstick, more than half of our common humanity’s apparently focused on your girlfriend, your truck, a six-pack, her hair, the moon, that ball cap you’ve got turned the wrong way and a tractor.
Not that hair and a girlfriend are bad things. I’m still trying to remember what it felt like to have either one.
I’m not so far gone that I think it’s gone for good. Even now, deep into the night, this glass all but empty, the radio a low hum from across the room, I hear it. I hear echoes of it coming through the speakers, floating across the ether. I hear it curling around Miranda Lambert and snaking through Chris Stapleton. I hear it channeling up through Carrie Underwood and hangin over Jason Aldean…hovering in the air like ribbons of smoke until it fades away, leaving only faint traces in the room. Like a siren song in my ears.
…Like a ghost in this house.
© 2017. J. Buck Ford