Earl Scruggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Earl Scruggs died on Wednesday, but I only found out about it yesterday. Sad. Earl Scruggs was the greatest banjo player in history, and he single-handedly invented the three-finger style of banjo playing we associate with the instrument today. (Pretty much every good banjo player you’ve ever heard is playing “Scruggs style.”) He joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys (the band that literally coined the term “bluegrass”) in 1945 — sixty years later, he was still touring well into his late eighties. Quite a musician.
Above is my favorite recording of his most famous tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, from the album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, an epic jam session which I think has to take the prize for the greatest country music album ever recorded. The precision and musicality that Scruggs maintains while playing at such a high speed is amazing.
Here’s a good piece that Steve Martin wrote about Scruggs in the New Yorker a few months ago if you’re interested in more information about the man. He also recorded a wonderful concert film called The Three Pickers with Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson, another titan of American folk / country music who’s still performing well into his 80s.
So long and thanks, Earl.
Also a good occasion to revisit this wonderful tune.
Elvis Costello - I’m Your Toy
from Almost Blue (1981)
My good friend Connor sent me this cover by Elvis Costello of Gram Parson’s “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy)”. He writes:
All my country music listening comes through Elvis Costello— in fact, Costello has basically been the portal through which I discovered most music. He’s kind of a gateway drug in that respect— I’d say 90 percent of the music I really like I can in some way trace back to first listening to Costello. …
In 1981, he went to Nashville and recorded an album of country songs produced by Billy Sherill (who was rather bemused at the idea of this limey punk rocker singing what he considered to be a bunch of “worn out” country standards.) It ended up being a big hit in the UK, but it was generally viewed as a weird thing for him to do, as it pre-dated the whole “alt-country” trend and he was a little bit ahead of the curve in that respect. (During his first tours of the US a couple of years earlier, he was told to hide his George Jones tapes on the tour bus so as not to “confuse” visiting rock journalists.)
… I viewed this country album of his as a weird anomaly — I had ZERO interest in country music, and all the typical anti-country biases that come from growing up in the midwest but not exactly identifying with the “rural” culture or worldview. … It was only a year or two later — once I’d practically worn out all the other Costello albums that I gave ALMOST BLUE another listen and realized that some of these songs were really powerful. So I started listening to a little bit of Gram Parsons, a little bit of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams, etc.
Fitting, I think, since Gram’s version of this song was my own introduction to country music. And Elvis does this song proud.
The Byrds - Hickory Wind
from Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
For sixth months in 1968, Gram Parsons was a member of The Byrds. He joined the band in February; by the time Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in August, he had quit. His brief tenure had outsized results, however, as Sweetheart became a truly seminal country-rock album, and was the first full step in the development of Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music”. His presence and passion for country music defined the sound of the album, and as a result Sweetheart is much more a part of the Gram Parsons Story than it is The Byrds, its only fault being that he was only permitted to sing lead on three of the songs. “Hickory Wind” is the best of those three — a simple song about a young man who, even as the city begins to take him apart, still can occasionally catch a trace of home floating by on the wind.
Donna Fargo - The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A. (1972)
At first blush, Donna Fargo sounds like the anti-Loretta Lynn. A song about a newlywed wife overwhelmed by marital bliss, featuring the astonishingly cloying line “It’s a skip-a-dee-doo-dah day”, “Happiest Girl” is oppressively cheerful, the opposite of everything a country song should be — right? But held at a different angle, it’s a prologue, a song sung by a woman who hasn’t been touched by heartbreak and betrayal, who hasn’t yet realized that the entire rest of country music is about to happen to her. Donna Fargo becomes the happy “before” picture to Loretta Lynn’s wiser, world-worn “after”. So let’s go easy on her — it is a pretty catchy song, after all, and things are only going to go downhill for her from here.
Ralph Stanley - O Death
from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
In 2009, the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance was given to international pop star Brad Paisley. In 2008 and 2006, it went to Nicole Kidman’s boyfriend Keith Urban. In 2002, it was awarded to Ralph Stanley, the 75 year old bluegrass singer, for this a cappella performance of an Appalachian funeral dirge. He deserved it.
Partially speaking in the voice of a man on death’s door, partially as death itself, the song takes its power from its unflinchingly physical depiction of the end of life. In so many country songs, death is a welcome respite from pain; here, it’s a horrifying prospect, the transformation of a person from something alive and vibrant into a collection of cold, moist flesh and bone.
I’ll fix your feet til you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw til you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very air, come and go with me
I’m Death, I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold.
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore - I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
from Spinning Around the Sun (1993)
My personal favorite. Some say Jimmie Dale Gilmore has the greatest voice in country music; if it’s not that, it’s certainly the most something. The notes he releases seem to hang in the air, as though, like a strummed electronic guitar, his voice will simply keep ringing until silenced.
As a special bonus, here’s the silliest person to ever record this song: In 1976, Steelers quarterback and future sports personality Terry Bradshaw recorded a version that inexplicably made it to #7 on Billboard’s country chart. I suppose a good song is a good song, no matter who sings it.
Cowboy Junkies - I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
from The Trinity Session (1988)
For your enjoyment, today I’ve posted the beautiful but melancholy country standard “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Many consider this to be one of the best songs of all time. This version, by the Cowboy Junkies, may be one of the saddest songs of all time. Maybe don’t repeat this one too many times.
This track comes courtesy of my good friend Ben, who blogs at I Love Girl Music. The Cowboy Junkies stretch out Hank Williams’ desert landscape to the edges of the horizon, slowing time until each moment seems to freeze in the air, barely passing at all. In Hank Williams’ version, the singer may wake tomorrow and ride home to see his loved one; here, the long, lonesome night never ends.
Al Green - I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
from Call Me (1972)
I’ve always thought that country and soul music have a lot in common. Both take their power from simple emotions, sincerely expressed; both originated in forms of traditional American music; both owe a great debt to the blues. In a just barely different world, this blog could have been “I Love Soul.” Apparently Al Green thought so too, because he covered not one, but two country songs on Call Me (the other: Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”) And to such wonderful effect: while too many covers wear the clash of genres on their sleeve, winking “Isn’t it cool we’re doing this?” with every phrase — I’m looking at you, punk rock bands — Green performers the song so naturally that it could have been written for him. His voice just grazes over the lyrics, crying in a way so different from Hank’s, yet to just the same ends.
Hank Williams - I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949)
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is one of the quiet masterpieces of country music, and the song that speaks most eloquently to Hank Williams’ gifts as a songwriter. A solitary man pines for his loved one, and sees his loneliness mirrored in the expressionist wilderness around him. Even the moon, to his eyes, appears to be turning away in sorrow. It’s a simple song, but an unforgettable one — it’s been recorded by countless artists in the sixty years since it was written, and has charted no fewer than six different times. This week, I’ll be posting some of my favorite renditions — beginning, of course, with the original.
Loretta Lynn - I’m a Honky Tonk Girl (1960)
Loretta Lynn was one of country music’s first feminists. Married at the age of 15, she had four children by the time she was nineteen years old; as her career went on, she wrote songs about the burden of motherhood, the double standard applied to female divorcees, and birth control. This song, though, was her first single, and it’s just a song about a lonely girl who seeks solace in a bar, right? Except that in 1960, to be a “honky tonk girl” — that is, a single girl in a drinking establishment — was to be seen as something dangerous, loose, and dirty. Simply singing a song from the perspective of such a woman was controversial, but by doing so, Loretta made her plight relatable, and thus just a bit more acceptable.
Forget about its progressiveness, though — it’s also a wonderful song. Loretta wrote it when she was 25, and while her voice is still improving, her performance is all talent — the harmony on the title line gets me every time. Producer Speedy West, one of the greatest pedal steel players of all time, rounds out what would already be a stellar single with a bright, shimmering sound and some terrific work behind the strings.