When my dad first told me he wanted a pedal-steel guitar for his birthday nine years ago, I scoffed. Not only because I knew he wouldn’t tear himself away from watching golf long enough to learn to play, but because I couldn’t possibly think of a more ridiculous instrument. It might have been great for him to pick up the pedal-steel 30 years ago when he could have rode the post-folk country waves in the musical ocean. Who knows, maybe he could have auditioned for an Eagles cover band or sold it for scrap once he realized that this kind of music sucks.
But in 1999? He could only have used those talents in an actual country band – which he would never let himself do… which his two high school aged children would NEVER EVER let him do. Ick.
Looking back on it, however, it seems I could have benefited from honing my own pedal-steel skill – or maybe even picked up the banjo – because it seems that those instruments (long the signature sounds of suckage) are becoming as common at a Silver Lake indie rock concert as aviator sunglasses and skinny-jeans.
It’s hard to put a finger on when banjos, mandolins and fiddles started to re-infiltrate rock, but I personally first noticed it when The Shins found international fame with the release of the Garden State soundtrack in 2004. Of course, musicians like Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes had been summoning the spirits of rock’s ancestral instrumentations for a few years, but the Shins ? They were a ROCK band, right?
Years before I’d been forced to listen to the twang when a friend subjected me to Billy Ray Cyrus, but I never knew it could be so cool.
But, now it is. So pick up your dobros, kids, and get your “friend” to learn mandolin if you want to start a band, ’cause indie rock’s goin’ country.
Take, for example, the Avett Brothers, a former punk band gone bluegrass. Or give a listen to Jack White’s duet with Emmylou Harris. Or note how Jenny Lewis, the lead singer of Rilo Kiley is being called a neo-Patsy Cline. Or simply check out how many plaid farmer shirts and Johnny Cash patches are at your local punk venue.
Something is happening.
Whatever the ethnological method used, it’s easy to see that the days of hard core ear-numbing rock are going to hell in the surrey with the fringe on top. But there’s no need to dust off your ten gallon hats and put a down payment on a Ford 850 because this trend reaches deeper than the stereotypical Redneck with the BBQ stain all runnin’ down front of the brand new Wife Beater. It’s Country Music’s Roots these bands are after. In fact, the reach extends back to the roots of American Music itself – the unique mix of blues, jazz and old-timey that created Rock and Roll in the first place.
Quick history lesson, shall we?
During the 19th Century an influx of immigrants into the (grossly unequal but incredibly diverse) United States from all over the world meant that instruments from the four corners of the Earth were brought together for the first time. Thus, the fusion of the African banjo, the German dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Eastern European accordion and the Irish fiddle created a completely new sound – now called “Old Timey.”
When mixed with blues guitar and jazz soloing methods, bluegrass and “hillbilly” music became the entertainment source for poor rural folks who didn’t have radios or record players and it was from this tradition that both Country Music and Rock and Roll emerged.
Country evolved mostly in poor, rural areas where electric instruments were rare. Rock and Roll was a more urban phenomenon. Thus, the traditions were separated, but cross pollination always continued, most notably in 1950s Rockabilly with stars like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson.
During the 60s and 70s country instruments appeared in the folk revival and even made appearances in classic rock. Go look through your hippie friend’s record collection and dig out some old Bela Fleck (who, by the way, has helped to re-popularize the banjo through his many jam band affiliations) or you might dig a little deeper and discover that Jerry Garcia was doing the same thing years before.
The point is this: the interplay of Rock and Country is nothing new. It is, rather, the manifestation of the periodic “return-to-roots” explorations made by many who have a historical appreciation for the kid with the spiked hair whose screaming obscenities on stage.
I myself am quite happy with the trend. Having grown up in a small town in Colorado where livestock raising was as popular as skateboarding, I was kinda force-fed Faith Hill and Tim McGraw back in the day and I won’t deny that listening to some good fiddlin’ is a welcome respite for the anomie experienced by my recent transplantation to Los Angeles – in a neighborhood where hearing gunshots is a daily experience, where it takes two hours to drive 15 miles and where men in tutus turning pirouettes on the Hollywood sidewalks are so common they just fade into the cityscape.
But why would someone who has lived in the city their whole life – someone who has never heard of a dobro or a mandolin – be keen to go a little country? It might be the same desire that’s recently spiked the demand for farmers’ markets and organic food – that we feel lost in our own technological advances. Perhaps the same person who wants to know where their food is coming from is also interested in knowing where their music comes from . Or, perhaps, in this ever globalizing country, we’re looking for something that’s American – and no matter how great purely studio bands like the Postal Service are, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned hootenanny to warm the cockles of the post-modern soul.
I could be any or all of these things, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we all really just want to know what it feels like to dance in tight jeans.
If you want to check out some of this good country / roots rock feeling, here are some artists to explore:
Country (that doesn’t suck):
Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Tift Meritt, Robert Earl Keen and Robbie Fulks
The Hangdogs, The Old ’97s (trivia: the band’s name is a reference to Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 nationwide country hit, “Wreck of the Old ’97.”), Neko Case, BR-549, Robbie Fulks, Ryan Adams
Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine, Rilo Kiley, Sufjan Stephens, The Decemberists, The Ditty Bops, The Shins
Logan Clark is our roving musicologist. She’s Traveled the world seeking out new beats, and now is clearly exhibiting signs of depression, living in L.A. and Listening to Country Music. Scary.