Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
To an “outsider,” country Music looks a bit like what the Church does to a non-Christian: weird, patriotic, and artistically stale. And to be fair, most of the time it is the worst and the craziest that catches the eye of the masses (here’s looking at you Toby Keith and Ed Young). But there is a wealth of great country music just begging to be discovered and understood.
For the non-country fan, it would be helpful to know a few basic things about country music that will help the genre make more sense. First, country music has two main roots: folk and blues. Most country is going to have some sort of blues structure to it (read more about that here) and is going to use traditional instruments as either accent or main sources of sound (think acoustic guitar, pedal steel, harmonica, banjo and/or mandolin). These instruments sometimes get dismissed as abrasive, but a great country player uses them to paint a picture, usually of rural America. Because these instruments come from the rural land that country claims to represent, the choice of instruments lend to the narrative aspect of Country.
Which brings me to my second point: country music is narrative-driven. The greatest country singers tell the greatest stories. Sometimes these are stories of rural revelry, romantic tragedy or somewhere in between. When listening to country music, listen to what the singer is saying. The voice is the most meaningful tool in the country tool belt. You can tell a good country song from a bad country song by the content of the lyrics, as most musicianship in modern country is quite good (regardless of how bad the song may be).
Maybe you have only heard the few crossover country hits that have broken pop radio in the last few years or maybe you’ve had a bad experience with a Charlie Daniels album (“Devil Went Down To Georgia” really was a one hit wonder; that dude is a serious dud…), but now is the time to venture into country music. Whether you are a pastor looking to better understand the cultural climate or a hip hop head who is looking to expand his range, country music is important to know because with it comes knowledge of the rural Americana spirit that occupies so many of those around us.
Good places to start: 5$ Albums at Amazon
No need to spend a fortune getting into a new style of music (and, seriously, don’t illegally download) because whenever Amazon.com releases a new list of 5$ albums there are always a few good country albums. This month there are some quality albums from the mainstream country world and the alt-country world.
Popular Country (i.e. “Nashville”)
You Get What You Give | Zac Brown Band This is a good FM Radio country band and a really good place to start. Their b-sides and album tracks tend to be just as good as their hits. A good album if you want to hear what your average country music fan is listening to. In this same sphere, also check out:
Rock & Roll
For some country-tinted Rock & Roll (music that wouldn’t be what it is today without country music) check out these classic pre-Americana albums:
Greatest Hits | The Band (The Band are Americana/Country heroes)
And my favorite style of music, alt-country (a big umbrella), describes the country music that isn’t coming out of big record labels in Nashville but out of the swamps and mountains of the American countryside. In this category there is bluegrass, outlaw, rockabilly, Americana and alternative. It is the “indie rock” of country music. Here are a few good (and cheap) albums that might fall under this umbrella:
Langehorne Slim & The Law | The Way We Move (Top notch alt-country songwriting, one of the best of the singer-songwriters in the Americana world)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot | Wilco (Not exactly “Country” but lead singer Jeff Tweedy is the king of alt-country in my book. This album is a must.