Saturday, 26 March 2011

Tin Cup Gypsy - Calico

Country pedigree

We'll see where this goes.

Various prompts have urged this posting. One was watching bits of the TOTP2 'Country' programme last night on TV. I actually caught very little but it was enough to needle me. There was an overall mocking tone in presenting this genre and that comes mainly from the formulaic sarcasm, presumably Steve Wright's, in so much of the on-screen captioning that summarises each act's background and musical history. The other is in considering the self-mockery of country stars themselves, with traditional and exaggerated examples like Dolly Parton's monstrous breasts, compressed waist and tumultuous wigs, or in a less physical manifestation, Tammy Wynette's melodramatic and/or homespun narratives - both these female representatives in various ways using this or it being used to conceal formidable talents and lives led so hard and full as to make the most outlandish storyline wilt by comparison.

That's the premise. Beneath or behind the mockery or facades, Country music has a foundation that is rock solid. It's specific mix of folk and blues is the fundamental layer. The myriad of twang and rhinestone and yeehaw and glitter and moronic lyrics disguise and distort that fundamental brilliance. In my recent listening the most consistently talented and memorable music has come from 'country' directions, whether that is traditional or alternative or whatever range there is between and beyond these simple poles [read recent reviews]. I set this against the abundant repetitions of indie and folk and pop et al that simply waft over and away after one aural encounter.

This is a huge hole I'm going to quickly dig because I can see myself falling in soon, but what the hell, I'll continue! For example, what irriates particularly are two of the most common elements in so much current and 'popular' music: 1. songs that have simple melodic lines that do nothing more than rotate forward into an orchestrated crescendo [as complex and convoluted as that might be as the main creative impulse], song after song after song on a single album, without any alternative songcraft; and 2. the propensity for most female solo singers to adopt the contemporary affectation of singing in a baby-voice with slurred diction and warped intonation.

The hole I'm digging is in presenting Country as the template for excellence when it too has such simple songwriting formulas and a propensity for affected voice! But for me a significant difference is that so many of its practitioners are virtuoso players and/or genuinely talented vocalists. Now, to mix my metaphors, I'm going to go out on a limb over this hole I'm digging: a case in point is an artist who appeared on this TOTP2 Country programme - Billy Ray Cyrus.

I actually liked and still like his most famous song 'Achy Breaky Heart' and the one played, obviously, on this programme. The reason is because it's a great country-rock song and Billy Ray has a fine country voice - evidenced by subsequent albums he has made where he sings with the best of them. However, he will never live down the ridicule and invective meted out on that one famous charted song of his.

The problems with that song are many, but most are to do with Billy Ray's then presentation. The mullet is perhaps the most maddening, as is the crazy dance he performs at the end of his routine - athletic as it is. The name too. Why not just Billy Cyrus so we don't think he's a stereotypical hillbilly? In terms of the song, it's the child-gibberish of 'acky breaky' that killed it for any measure of critical acclaim, though ironically that's what made it sell. Imagine if those trite descriptive neologisms on the state of his heart had been replaced by a varying chorus of 'torn and tattered/worn and battered' and then 'frail and fearful/fraught and tearful' or similar? Go on, sing it to yourself and put in these replacements. If the grammar was polished too [working on 'Myself knows that I'm not okay'] this song has further lyric potential. It is in fact a strong story about heartache leading to homicide and contains potential for powerful imagery, for example the line 'tell my eyes to watch out for my mind'. The stanza about Arkansas, getting a dog to bite his leg, and brother Cliff's fist might just need complete removal, but I think the rock-roots of the song are strong and without the sillier lyrics and Billy Ray Bob John Hank and so on's hair etc., it might have been a more respected hit.

Convinced? Well, that's the fun of the argument. This isn't a thesis so I'll quickly move to the review which is a 'country' album that wipes the floor with so many other contemporary releases because it uses country songcraft and musicianship and harmony vocals to construct a varied and demonstrably memorable listen. Tin Cup Gypsy's Calico is a mix of bluegrass and folk if you want to simplify it, but there are pop and jazz elements which is why it makes a good comparison with what I have characterised as the more insipid popular music out there. I wanted to write the more 'cloned' popular music but I am aware that 'country' is a type too, with its obvious stylistic features, so after all of my arguing it is about taste and opinion. I happen to like Country in all its range and thus am bound to have a preferential ear for it. But I do also genuinely feel that it more often than not has a fundamental strength in its practitioners and performance, and Tin Cup Gypsy is one of many bands to exemplify this.

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