From the moment Hunter Berry’s tearful-sounding fiddle plaintively whines the first four bars of Rhonda Vincent’s new single, we know we’re in for a sad country shuffle. In fact, the notes he strikes on the fiddle anticipate almost note-for-note Vincent’s emphatic, but mournful, tone in her first lines and the song’s chorus. Vincent’s soaring vocals, backed by those doleful fiddles and the pleading resophonic guitar of Brent Burke, deliver a sorrowful breakup song with a twist.
Written by Larry Cordle and Lionel Delmore, and recorded by Josh Logan on his album Somebody Paints the Wall (1988), “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You” is the perfect “I-can’t-quit-you-baby” song. Hurting from a breakup, the woman calls her lover, knowing that he’s not alone. Still in love, she longs for some physical connection with him, so she’s compelled (“I had to phone”) to call her former lover just to hear his voice. Though her lover tells her she’s calling in vain, the “sound of [his] voice somehow eases the pain.” Rather than giving up all contact with her former lover—or
even enduring the painful silence of his presence when he’s nothing left to say to her—she craves the sound of his voice, hanging on to him by the thin thread of the telephone line, preferring to hear his declaration “I don’t love you” than a dial tone or to feel his absence.
Cleverly written, the song trades on a number of witty phrases that capture the longing for connection as well as the pain the woman is willing to endure just to stay connected. Not wanting to draw out the relationship or conversation, he’s “anxious to hang up,” but she’s “willing to stall,” since she’d “rather hear I don’t love you/than nothing at all.” He’d “like to hang up,” but she’s “just hangin’ on.” She guesses she should say goodbye “before she breaks down and bawls,” but she can’t bring herself to hang up since hearing “I don’t love you” is better than “hearing nothing at all.”
Vincent’s vocal delivery is perfect as she captures the rising tension of the conversation, wringing out the tears and the aching, throbbing heartbreak that comes from knowing what you have to do but being tortured by not being able to do it. The music starts out slowly, building to a crescendo of fiddles and resophonic guitar in the break, capturing the aches, pains, regrets, and even hopes of the lyrics. Vincent’s powerful and touching new single drives straight to the heart.
On her exquisite new album Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea shows herself to be an artist who fully understands music as a medium of art and self-expression. Following down a path similar to that of her stellar Grammy-nominated 2008 effort Coal, but expanding upon it by dealing with a wider range of topics, Calling Me Home finds Mattea turning to her own roots for inspiration, and producing what just might be the finest album of her illustrious career.
Produced by Gary Paczosa and Mattea herself, Calling Me Home is a confident, ambitious album that displays broadness in thematic scope, and eclecticism in musical influences, yet does so without sacrificing cohesion. The album is perhaps most instantly appreciable as a work of astounding sonic beauty. Mattea’s distinctive alto has rarely sounded better than it does when poured into a collection of simply beautiful Appalachian songs that she renders with poise, grace, and palpable personal connection. Her voice is framed by the sounds of pure, gorgeous mountain instruments, performed by an ace team of veteran pickers that includes Bill Cooley on guitar, Bryan Sutton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, among others.
Several songs encapsulate the warmth and comfort of home, as well as the homesickness brought on by one’s being separated from it. The former is manifested in a warm and inviting waltz-like take on Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home, with the latter being explored on the beautiful mandolin-driven album opener “A Far Cry.” Mattea also addresses the coal mining industry that is central to the West Virginia economy. In musing on man’s unending lust for coal, she takes on the voice of coal itself in the brilliant Larry Cordle/ Jeneé Fleenor composition, “Hello, My Name Is Coal.” She ventures into bleaker territory with Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” (which features contributions from two of country music’s finest harmony vocalists, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris) a song which conveys the frustration of a narrator who sees his beloved farmland overrun by mining pollution. Another Jean Ritchie song, the tragic “West Virginia Mine Disaster” deals with the heartbreak of a woman whose husband is killed in a coal mine, with Mattea delivering a desperate, heartrending performance.
A foremost thematic thread running through the album is that of respect for the natural world, and of the ongoing conflict between preservation of nature and man’s desire for growth and expansion. “The Maple’s Lament” is worth hearing even just for the piercing, moaning fiddle that opens the track, and winds its way throughout, but Mattea’s take on Laurie Lewis’s aching tale of a maple tree that loses its life to a woodsman’s axe is more than enough to keep one interested. In a similar vein, “The Wood Thrush’s Song” takes on the voice of the woodland bird whose song is no longer heard in the Appalachian woods. Mattea’s vocal renderings show that she deeply she identifies with the characters she inhabits in these songs, whether giving voice to the widow of a deceased coal miner, or to something as simple as a personified wood thrush or maple tree.
The theme of human activities’ effect on nature comes to a head on Alice Gerrard’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day.” In this haunting, unadorned a cappella performance, (one of two a cappella tracks on the album, the title track being the other) Mattea recounts an exchange between God and man that serves as a reminder of humankind’s responsibility to tend earth’s natural resources rather than damage them. A message of hope is echoed by Si Kahn’s Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which deals with the restorative power of nature in the face of having been marred by human carelessness.
The value of this album is manifold. Calling Me Home acquaints us on a personal level with the woman behind the microphone, giving insight into her background, and the things that are important and dear to her. It enlightens, and challenges the listener to become a better, more caring person – not through a preachy or condescending tone, but through thought-provoking song material that that appeals to the listener’s heart, as well as to one’s own sense of home.
In short, the album does everything that music in its finest and purest form is meant to do. The resulting product is not only the best country album of 2012, but a new peak for a woman who has already made some of the most compelling music of her generation. Without a doubt, Mattea’s Calling Me Home is a must-have.
The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.
“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”
Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.
What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?
These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.
But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?
The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.
So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.