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Christgau Country

1 Apr

Robert-Christgau-image. . . At which point I find myself in wholehearted agreement with noted Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau.

Coming of age in early 80’s Southern California, New Yorker Christgau was never gonna be the first name in music criticism, good or bad – that space was reserved for the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn, whose unflagging dedication to the heroic populism of Bruce Springsteen, U2 et al made for some particularly dull, predictable Sunday morning reading back then. Instead, I became conscious of Christgau a few years later, as the butt of indie-critic jibes by the likes of Thurston Moore and Mykel Board. It wasn’t until the 90’s that I’d familiarise myself with his books, if only to catch up with a record collecting buddy who made it his mission to acquire every record graded at B+ or above therein. This brief sojourn solidified my negative impression of Christgau going forward: he’s that snarky guy with no patience for hard/heavy rock, and therefore not the man for me.

But apparently, I’m no longer the man I thought I was either, musically speaking. And in my recent awakening to country music, I’ve become aware of another, more useful side to the writings of the Dean of American Rock Critics. Way back during the Summer of Love, Christgau wrote that country music

is the last untouched reserve of popular music . . . frankly, I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the music because I find it fascinating but unlistenable. It is very insular, appealing mostly to the white, lower-middle-class adults, especially those in the South and West and away from the urban centers. The lyrics, which are much more inventive than the music, reflect this appeal; booze and sexual temptation are favorite subjects. Aside from Roger Miller, who defies the categories anyway, no C&W performer has broken into the pop of this decade for more than a freak hit, although in the Fifties C&W was almost as important as R&B. This is an index of the increasing withdrawal of the audience. Rock borrows constantly from country music, with good effect; when C&W borrows, and it does so more and more, it borrows from the corny accouterments of easy listening and outdated pop. Most of the songs are lugubrious, ridiculous, or both. But taken as a whole they form a fascinating folk music, and some even stand by themselves. (from Secular Music, 1967)

I like this Christgau bit. Not only do most of his generalisations still hold 45 years on, but he makes no secret that he’s approaching this music as an outsider, as a listener of rock and roll first and foremost. That’s an angle he’s kept in much of his country music writing ever since.

Peruse Christgau’s website and you’ll turn up dozens (hundreds?) of insightful if still sometimes snarky reviews about a diverse range of country artists. Taken in total, it’s eye-opening reading. Few other schooled, urbane liberals have ever bothered attempting to delve into – much less appreciate – the width and breadth of this sorta music. And he gets it right more often than wrong.

It would seem that Christgau, like me, is fascinated by the closed-off nature of Nashville: this bizzaro music world running parallel to the mainstream of rock/pop, one with unique standards and trends that evince logic all their own. While he incorporates lateral political analysis a bit too frequently for my taste, cut him some slack – the prominence of lyrics in this peculiar form and the noted conservatism of some of it’s artists lend itself to such diversions. But what I’m most impressed by is that Christgau, indeed, does love clever Honky Tonk phrasing, commanding Southern singer/stylists, and sweet, sweet country songs. That’s something I can relate to these days.

Here’s a few examples of Christgau’s writing on country artists over the years:

On George Jones

“Smiling corpse or committed cuckold or drunk peering over the edge of the wagon, a sinner is what he am, and he’s never sounded so abject or unregenerate — the twenty-years-in-five thickness of his Epic voice only intensifies the effect.” (review of I Am What I Am, 1981)

On Melba Montgomery

“George isn’t just being polite when he claims Melba was a better match than Tammy — anyone who counts that Birmingham beautician deep country should check out the hollers near Iron City, Tennessee. Montgomery is less original than Jones, as is Pavarotti. But she’s so downhome that she never got her druthers or her just deserts. And she’s also so downhome that Pappy Daily didn’t even think about countrypolitanizing her.” (review of Vintage Collections, 1997)

On Randy Travis

“I can now hear, for instance, why many prefer Storms of Life –don’t matter as much as what holds them together: the voice, the voice singing. If this seems perilously close to the canary fancying that’s given the world so many Mariah Careys, let me note immediately that John Anderson versus George Strait is still no contest by me. Frazzled though Anderson’s drawl may be, it’s artist versus craftsman–he’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s avid, and he moves. Anderson versus Travis, however, now seems a close call. We always knew, sort of, that over and above material and production that outclassed his immediate forebears, what made Travis new traditionalism’s breakout artist was an ache that invoked the pantheon–Jimmie and Hank, Lefty and Merle.” (from the essay Striving For Ease, 2002)

And on recent Nashville chart-topper Brad Paisley

“Complete with the rowdy male choral farewell “You wear the pants/Buddy good for you/We’re so impressed/Whoop-de-doo,” “The Pants” is a typically sidelong gambit from an artist who knows how to sell simple truths to a resistant audience — a master of the catchy chorus, the phrase ratcheted up a notch, the joke only a teabagging jerkola could resent. And though that’s easier with marriage songs, those soppy country staples that sometimes come as well-honed as Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” or Garth Brooks’s “Unanswered Prayers,” no country artist has ever been sharper about what connubial bliss entails.” (from the essay Paisley’s Progress, 2009)

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