Box Full of Letters from Issue #28
Lee Ann Womack:
Countrified or compromised?
When I first saw the article on Lee Ann Womack [ND #27, May-June ’00], I was nonplussed. Then I saw the byline and thought, well, what can you expect from a guy who doesn’t “get” Gram Parsons? Just be happy they didn’t put her on the cover.
But since it was No Depression, I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt and read the article. Okay, so Buddy Miller thinks Ms. Womack is “an incredible singer” and was “blown away” by her “treatment” of his songs. I like Buddy’s stuff a lot, and I don’t doubt he’s sincere, but I’ve heard Lee Ann Womack’s music and I can’t say I’m terribly impressed. While she may be a better country singer than Faith Hill or Martina McBride, it strikes me that the real art she’s mastered is that of compromise, and I still can’t believe you’d do a feature on her when there are so many fringe country artists who need and deserve the exposure a lot more than she does. A scant three-paragraph review of Tish Hinojosa’s new album simply does not suffice.
I think readers hold No Depression to a higher standard. Yes, I’m a snob, but so is Steve Earle. He called Shania Twain the highest paid lap dancer in Nashville, but it didn’t seem to hurt her record sales any, did it? I’m sure that as long as she can get her songs played on Hot Country radio and make videos for CMT, Ms. Womack will have no trouble selling her new CD, regardless of what I or anyone else say.
That said, I would like to compliment David Cantwell for his fine piece on Ray Price (also for his earlier article on Iris DeMent, my absolute favorite singer of all time). On paper, the post-honky-tonk, countrypolitan Ray Price is not someone whose music I should like, but damn it, I do. Apparently there were people who once scorned him as much as some of us scorn Garth Brooks today, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Brooks is a pretender and deserves to be scorned. Price never did. He’s the real deal and can sing the hell out of almost anything, no matter what the music sounds like.
Maybe, Mr. Alden, you feel the same way about Lee Ann Womack. If so, we can agree to disagree. And if a fellow working stiff driving home from the grindstone one day hears a Lee Ann Womack song on the radio and gets a much-needed lift from it, I certainly don’t have a problem with that. I just think listeners ought to be able to hear Ray Price on the same radio station so that they can make up their own minds as to which they like better.
But that dead horse has already been flogged, hasn’t it?
Now that I think of it, I suppose that by running articles on both of these singers, your magazine is merely offering us the choice that mainstream country radio denies us, in which case maybe I don’t have all that much to complain about after all.
— Shawn Cote
Ft. Fairfield, Maine
No mere imitation
A good friend of mine and I had just returned from a cheapie charter flight to Las Vegas to see the first three nights of Dale Watson’s two week stint at Arizona Charlie’s when I read Geoffrey Himes’ review of live albums from Joe Ely and BR-549 in the May-June issue of No Depression. I’d like to know what the hell’s he’s doing referring to Dale Watson (and the Derailers, and Kristi Rose, sorry I don’t know her music) and Southern Culture On The Skids (what do they have to do with this?) as an alt-country “costume act” intersected in “imitation rather than inspiration.” My eyes bugged out, and two days later I’m still fuming. Every time I’ve seen Dale Watson, and it’s been at least a dozen times, my reaction is always that old Jon Landau line about Springsteen: “I’ve seen the future of country and its name is Dale Watson.” Dale Watson is, simply, the purest and most principled artist of whom I’m aware — in any genre of music — and I’ve been actively listening to music for over 40 years.
Let me be straight, I think Himes was too critical of BR-549, whose punk sensibility adds a touch on the outside fringes of “country,” and he was way off the mark with the Derailers, who’ve taken the Bakersfield sound to another level. With the exception of Rose, I have all the work of these artists, including SCOTS, in my collection. I mean, aren’t groups like these who letter-writer/reader David Wilds had in mind in wanting to off record executives after 500,000 of sales? Shouldn’t all these groups be successful and famous? And don’t at least some of us yearn for a revolution in country radio so we can actually hear these groups on the air?
I understand there’s this ongoing debate about definitions, i.e., what does Summer Teeth (I love Wilco, but I thought it was a perfectly ghastly album) have to do with alt-country? Which is, after all, still the focus of your magazine. I don’t gripe when you review a new Chuck Prophet or Joe Henry. I like both those guys, though their recent work has nothing whatsoever to do with the alt-country genre anymore. So why bite the hand? Dale Watson is going to be playing pure country music (so pure it’s called “alt”) long after any of the aforementioned groups/artists are still active. He should be honored for his art; instead he’s ridiculed. And in No Depression, no less. I know he’s gotten favorable press before from No Depression, and undoubtedly he will again. Which is why I’m troubled a statement such as Himes’ made it past editing.
There have been many great voices in country, from Lefty to George Jones to Vern Gosdin, Merle Haggard, etc. Without any hesitation I place Dale Watson on this list. Does he occasionally sound like Merle? Yes, especially when he does his “mandatory Merle” song per set. Is this imitation rather than inspiration? The statement would be laughable if it didn’t hurt so much.
I see artists like Dale Watson, some of whom are friends of mine, struggling with the industry, the record companies, the lack of paying gigs. Many are great artists with day jobs — extremely talented people who have to work in bookstores to pay the bills. Dale Watson is making a living, that’s obvious, but not enough of one to suit me. The man should not have to worry about paying the bills. To see him onstage is to see country music artistry of the first order. Each time I see him, I feel like I could be in the Danceteria 30 years ago listening to a young George Jones. Which is why having such a talented musical artist dismissed as an imitator with one flippant comment, in a review that isn’t even about his own work, rankles so much.
Clearly Himes “gets” Joe Ely. Just as clearly he doesn’t “get” Dale Watson. It’s often a problem having reviewers cover music they don’t particularly like. Those who suffer are the artists and would-be fans who rely on people like your reviewers to separate quality from chaff. Thoughtless statements like Himes’ hurt everyone.
— Mark Perron
Little reason to Smile
I have to say that I don’t really share Erik Flannigan’s fascination with the new Jayhawks album [ND #27, May-June ’00]. I’ve always enjoyed the Jayhawks albums up until Smile, but there’s just something about this one that really sticks in my craw.
Oh, I know what it is! [Producer Bob] Ezrin’s job, supposedly, was to make the band concentrate on the songwriting, but it seems that he concentrated more on the sound. As much as I respect Louris’ work in the past, it seems Smile tries to pass off too many songs where the chorus is just a single line repeated ad nauseum. I swear, two listens to “What Led Me To This Town”, and I have no desire whatsoever to listen to this album again, let alone visit that town. Much of the rest of the album is rock-cliche-land of the worst kind, down to lyrics like “We’re gonna stay together for a million years.” Yawn.
That’s not to say that there’s not some fine material here. “A Break In The Clouds” is quite nice, even if it does qualify as one of the songs with a chorus problem. Seriously, most of the material here could be salvaged if the choruses had been more fully thought out. As it stands, though, I’m not particularly interested.
— Sean Carruthers
I am 59 years old and I really like the Bad Livers’ Blood & Mood. I also love traditional country music and bluegrass.
By the way, when you say “how can adherence to traditional music sounds and structures by anything BUT a conservative impulse?”, are you also referring to the blues tradition?
By the way, have you ever heard of Tex & the Horseheads? Cowpunk from the ’80s.
— Nancy Preston
Shine like diamonds
You never know what your labor of love might bring to your readers.
While reading issue #27’s interview with Peter Guralnick, and the Chet Flippo story on Doug Sahm, I decided to call an old friend in Boone, North Carolina, who had introduced me to Guralnick’s writing 15 years ago. I hadn’t spoken to him in five years, but when I called he answered the phone at his old number. Within a few minutes the years slipped away and I was getting an education in the early years of the Sir Douglas Quintet.
I sent issue #27 on to Boone, and the next day I received five original 45s from the ’60s of George Jones, Buck Owens, and Marty Robbins in the mail.
I will treasure the vinyl, but even better was getting back in touch with another comrade in search of “cosmic American music.”
— David W.
Hendersonville, North Carolina