Volume 94, Issue 58

Friday, January 5, 2001


Don't panic - they're just a rock band

I know it's only country, but I like it

I know it's only country, but I like it

By Aaron St. John
Arts & Entertainment Editor

This Sunday on PBS, a new documentary from award winning filmmaker Ken Burns will make its premiere. Like Burns' previous works, Baseball and The Civil War, his latest opus is devoted to a central piece of American culture: jazz. Throughout the 10-part series, Burns examines the history of the music, its origins and key figures, while building an argument that jazz stands as the quintessential example of American music.

The problem with all of this is that it ignores another form of music which possesses a history just as storied as jazz, and one that had an impact arguably greater on modern music than jazz ever did. The music in question? Country.

Stay with me here. I'm not talking about the kind of country that probably pops into your mind whenever you hear the words; the so-called "new country" performed by the likes of Shania Twain, Garth Brooks or those annoying (but cute) Dixie Chicks. Those artists and the countless others like them, while certainly talented, have about as much to do with real country as Will Smith does with hip-hop.

I'm talking about real country music, the kind that Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson originated. Music that, like its predecessor, blues, was about real life and the struggles people go through everyday. Technically, country music may be simple, without any of the fancy time signatures or complex chord progressions of jazz, but it's also much more accessible and as such, probably deserves to be labeled "America's music" more than jazz does.

When you think about it, the legacy of country is also much more pervasive. It is generally thought that jazz is no longer a major creative force – that the form's glory days have passed. There just aren't that many people working within the jazz world today who are creating vital, exciting music anymore.

This is not the case with country. If you ignore the work of the aforementioned "new country" artists, there are plenty of people currently making great country music. Just take a listen to people like Hank-3, Steve Earle, Neko Case and you'll see what I mean. Today's country music artists are some of the best songwriters in the world. There are exceptions of course, but on the whole, their talent is unparalleled in the rest of the music industry.

Then there's the consideration of the influence country has had on rock music. Early rock and rollers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were heavily influenced by country music and that continues today in the music of The Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo and Wilco, all of whom are rock bands with a serious country edge. There are countless others who operate in a similar vein and even those who don't in an obvious way can't help but have a "little bit of country" in them.

So don't dismiss country just yet. Give it a try and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. At the very least, it may give you a better sense of music history.

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