Thursday, January 10, 2008

The 'Perfect' Country Song - Part 2

Wow, what a response to Paul’s pursuit of the “perfect” country song! While I haven’t even thought about starting my own research (although I did note that I need to restock the ‘fridge with some cold inspiration), the riders on the Bus have already made some valid points, as I expected. I have received plenty of comments, emails, and phone calls with nominations for a wide variety of “perfect” country songs.

Our long-time friend, Mr. Beer N. Hockey, started the ball rolling with his nomination of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” Whoa, “Four Strong Winds” is most often considered a folk song, but it fits the required criteria and Ian Tyson is the personification of country music north of the 49th parallel. This was going to be much more involved and difficult than I had anticipated.

Just as I was pondering Beer’s comment our good friend and frequent contributor, Walt, walked up with his first suggestion, “Long Black Veil.” I countered with Gary Stewart’s “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).” Within a minute we came up with a dozen songs to consider. All fit the requisite and yet the list was a varied one.

Perhaps it was rider Richard’s comment, “there'll be folks with their own ideas about what constitutes 'perfection’,” that made me realize that not only would it be a task to define “perfection”, but I wasn’t even sure if the it was possible to define “country.” By Paul’s choices I’d say that he had in mind the commercial honky-tonk sounds of the 1970s. But does this relatively short era really define country music more than the country music of any other period? Today’s country music differs in significant ways from the country music of previous eras. How would one decide what era best identifies country music as a genre?

That famous recording session in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia in July of 1927, when producer Ralph Peer solicited local musicians to play for the Victor Talking Machine Company, is considered the “Big Bang” of country music. The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Ernest Stoneman were among the artists first recorded at that session. Their music was not the hillbilly tunes that had been recorded on earlier sessions further south. This music was a new sound that combined aspects of many different genres in a fresh new sound. That new sound would become known as country music.

Country music evolved and developed further in the 1930s and ‘40s. Peddle steel guitars were becoming common in the late ‘40s and by the 1950s electric instruments were common. Rockabilly and the honky-tonk sound played a major roll in the development of country music in the ‘50s. By the late ‘50s, the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, with its slick production techniques and use of string sections was making its mark on country music. In the 1960s and early ‘70s country music took on a new sound, one propagated by the CMA that was more palatable to a larger, more urban audience.

With such a long and varied amount of material to choose from, how would one begin to find a song that best represented the genre? Such a task would not be any easier to accomplish with any other genre of music, even one as young as rock. Could one be expected to find a song that best defines rock music? Would it be from the rockabilly era, the British invasion, the Woodstock era?

After giving it a bit of thought, I don’t believe it possible to find one song that can define an entire genre of music. Paul’s post leaned heavily toward the honky-tonk sound of the 1970s and as representatives of that era his choices were superb but, not representative of the whole of country music.

No one song can capture the variety and rich culture of country music, as these suggestions from riders on the Bus demonstrate. Thanks to Paul for posing the question and to the riders on the Bus for your thoughts and suggestions.

Ian & Sylvia - Four Strong Winds.mp3

Lefty Frizzell - Long Black Veil.mp3

Gary Stewart - She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles).mp3

Del McCoury - 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.mp3


Anonymous Paul said...


I think you're probably right, but it's fun to ask the question. I leaned on the classic honky-tonk era, because it's my favorite stuff, but I also love Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, The Flatlanders, etc.

As for the definition of "country," I would suggest starting with Tom T. Hall's song "Country Is," which argues that "country" is more of an attitude (hard working yet laid back) than anything else.

One more thing: The "perfect" rock song is "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan.


January 10, 2008 9:54 AM  
Blogger Ed said...


It was a fun exercise, and an eye opening one for me. Like you, I have a fondness for the honky-tonk era.

Funny you should mention Tom T. Hall, I had considered one of his or Don Williams as the most representative country song.

Ha! "Like a Rolling Stone" is a great choice, but...

January 10, 2008 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Ed, maybe a more manageable goal (if you decide to continue the search) would be to attempt a 'Top 10' list of each genre of 'country' music ... Even tho' I like stuff done by Gib Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, I also like Cash, Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Iris DeMent, John Prine, Willie, and (to use a phrase) a 'whole host of friends and relatives' in the musical arena ... And for my $0.02, there's nothin' quite like hearing the sad moan of a well-played pedal steel guitar to really make a song a 'cry in your beer' special ... Bruce Kaphan is one of my favorite pedal steel artists, but there are (again) a 'host of relatives and friends' that can bring a wee bit o' the old moisture to the fleshy orb with their skill ...

January 10, 2008 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Ed, Working my way up from Poverty to the top Country picks. It's a jump and though one might feed the other, country music may be more transparent. Don't know. BUT woke up this morning with Merle on my mind. "Whisky and gin what a rare mood I'm in..." now this fits the mold... no ?
If it weren't for my friend Angus and the Old Blue Bus my musical culture would be bereft of these influences since I don't get much beyond the 12th century these days. Merle Haggard, the first to come into mind from a country novice.

Ears up ! You've got us thinking. This is good. I'll go by way of anonimus since by now you know the tag line...

all thoughts fly... k.

January 10, 2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

This little exercise has taught me to stay away from trying to pick the best of any style of music. By noon I had compiled a list of over sixty songs that I felt were deserving of mention. Even breaking the genre down into sub-catagories would be difficult. Nearly every song has attributes of greatness.

I have to agree about the peddle steel. I did a post on the peddle steel guitar just last year, so I'll hold off on another for a bit, but you can expect I'll slip a few tunes in from time to time.

January 10, 2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Black Dog,
You are right, the Bus has been wandering this week with no destination in mind. Foot loose and fancy free! An occassional sponateous road trip does the mind and body good.

As for the music of the 12th century, well, there is a very good reason they call that period the Dark Ages.

January 10, 2008 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Is there any way that you could provide us with that list of nominated songs? It would be fascinating! I agree with Richard that a whiny steel guitar is a prerequisite. If it don't moan, it ain't country.

January 10, 2008 6:25 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...


I think I'm ready for another peddle steel post anytime you're in the mood...

January 10, 2008 7:06 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Dan and Paul,
You don't have to twist my arm to get a good peddle steel post! I'll try to put something together soon.

Dan, that list was scribbled on a sheet of paper while I was at work and went out with the trash once I realized just how futile the exercise was. It did give me some ideas for a few future posts though, so stay tuned...

January 10, 2008 8:42 PM  
Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

You might even find there are people who do not believe the '52 Vincent is the perfect motorcycle. I'd never heard Del`s version of Thompson`s song, beauty, a song I might nominate as the perfect rock song if it were not for Anarchy in the U.K.

January 10, 2008 9:00 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

I went with Del's version after much deliberation as it's bluegrass feel fit the contrast in styles I was going for.

My brother-in-law rides a beautiful '48 HD knucklehead that I have envied for decades. Unfortunately, the roads in these parts are filled with drivers aiming their over-sized SUVs along as they chat on their cell phones. Not a healthy environment for two wheelers.

January 10, 2008 9:12 PM  

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