The other international language: country music

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

"No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful" ~Kurt Vonnegut

Love has taken the top spot as "the" international language, and I'm not here to disagree. But whoever said that was obviously love struck and completely forgot to mention the other international language ... country music!

Okay, I'm biased toward the country type, but I've seen music work as a language in several countries, including Seattle. I'll admit to having seen country music send people running out of a room with their hands over their ears (happened to me), but they're just ignorant. Everybody likes a little country, they just might not know it yet.

Country music's foundations have been deeply shaken many times, and way before Kid Rock hosted the Country Music Awards, but there are advantages to having artists from other genres dip their toes into the twangier side of life.

The first time I admitted to myself that I might like country music a little bit was when Riley Woodford gave me a Knitters CD, probably 12 years ago. The Knitters are an alter ego of the legendary L.A. punk band X, with Dave Alvin of the Blasters sitting on some tasty electric guitar. They did a couple of classics on that first album, and wrote a few kooky originals including "Wreckin' Ball", an anthemic look into the world of a chicken stomper.

The knowledge that this hillbilly band was actually one of my favorite punk bands in disguise convinced me to open up my ears a little bit and give it an honest listen. I still stick to my tenet that 90 percent of everything sucks, but I used to think that all country music sucked and that was because they don't play the good 10 percent on the radio.

Many other punk bands put out pseudo hillbilly albums too including Ween, the Supersuckers, the Vandals and Social Distortion - and, as a reader recently clued me into, the Mekons - and I'm sure I'm not the only punk skater who opened up my ears to five decades of music that I had already written off as having sucked. Maybe Ray Charles brought some jazz-o-philes over to country when he recorded with Johnny Cash. I'd bet that some die-hard hillbillies got turned on to jazz and soul the same way, too.

There'll always be trends, but every person's journey through music is different and unique. There are infinite paths through it all and, though it might not seem like it, we have hardly any control over where they might take us. Is that cool or what?

I still think the idea of an "Allison Krauss with Robert Plant" album is an abomination, but I listened to it first just to make sure. Chances were slim, but it might have been somethin' worth keeping.

Country music or not, hopefully you're finding something out there that will reach out and grab you enough to want to listen a second time.

But a huge swath of the music that you hear from the U.S.A. (genres be damned) just flatly and simply is influenced in some way by the huge volume of work that can get tucked in under the country blanket. Even if only the tiniest sliver of the grooves out there appeal to you, you're still doin' good.

The amount of music produced and available in the world is a staggering and beautiful thing. Open up your ears and listen up for the other international language.

• Sean Tracey is not as smart as he looks, and that's pretty damn scary.

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