It Started With A Disc from R2 September 2014
Throughout the 70s and into the 80s country music – it was usually Country & Western – was anathema to me. In my mind it meant schmaltzy songs about love triumphs over death and loss or the multiple woes of the congenitally lovesick. As far as I could see it was sung by right-wing, flag-waving good ol’ boys who would want to beat up a 14 year old punk kid like me into The Ramones, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys. My secret love of a pedal steel and a fiddle was a constant embarrassment to me. I watched The Dukes of Hazard not for the muscle cars but because I loved the Waylon Jennings’ theme tune.
My music education was provided by the Reading Central Lending Library. On a mezzanine floor above the cavernous Victorian hall of cast iron and polished hardwood shelves were inclined tables with racks containing library cards. Each library card represented a vinyl disc behind the counter. There was something magical about taking a card to the desk: the vinyl came from one shelf and was paired with a cardboard sleeve from another. I’d take home something new and thrilling to drop on my turntable. YouTube and iTunes has destroyed the whole mystique around music. The whole point was that no one else knew these records; I was part of the musically educated elite.
I admit it. The library made me into a musical snob; thirty years later I have not fully recovered. My friends were listening to Duran Duran and Haircut 100 whilst my musical explorations took me from Derek and the Dominoes to Howlin’ Wolf to Charley Patton. The blues were cool. So was jazz. I listened to Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. In 1984 I heard The Pogues’ Red Roses For Me and learnt that folk music went beyond sticking your finger in your ear and singing in a nasal drawl. Lots of folk music, I learnt, was as politically committed and anti-establishment as the punk groups I loved. I was seventeen and new musical possibilities involved blurring these discrete genres. But through all this I still knew that Country, far worse than not being cool, was actually seriously uncool.
In 1985 the Reading Central Lending Library moved to a new purpose-built building and the racks of cards were replaced in the Record Library by deep wooden trays containing the album sleeves. Some of the myth and mystery evaporated with the card index; but now there was a discrete section labelled Country. I was too scared to approach it in case I was mistaken for what I imagined a C&W fan to be: middle aged, dressed in a Stetson and humming a Box Car Willie song.
Occasionally I would glance over at the Country section as I thumbed through the Chess Records Anthologies in the Blues sections, but I didn’t dare approach it and consoled myself instead by listening to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Dead Flowers’: the acceptable face of country music.
Eventually I found a way to rationalise my desire for ‘honky tonk’ music. I told myself that I was attracted to ‘American folk music’, which sounded less corny than Country and Western. I plucked up courage and looked in the Country tray. Sitting at the front was black album sleeve with three musicians on the front. Two were younger, one in a western shirt with an acoustic guitar and one dressed like a double glazing salesman with an electric guitar, the third was an older guy in a Stetson holding a fiddle. It was called Revelry and above the title it said: Peter Rowan, Tex Logan and Greg Douglas. It seemed as good a place to start as any other.
I took it home, dropped the needle and it was a revelation. Peter Rowan turned out to have a voice that sent a shiver down my spine: from high lonesome yodel to passionate protest. Greg Douglas’s finger-picked and slide-guitar work was as intricate as any of the blues guitarists I’d heard. And Tex Logan and his fiddle seemed as coolly authentic as any jazz musician.
The album included a number of songs I have come to know as country standards: ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Mansion On The Hill’ and ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’. I have yet to hear better versions. The sound was clear with unadorned arrangements: just guitars, bass and fiddle. There was a talking blues where Tex Logan tells us how he persuaded Rowan to leave ‘that rock and roll stuff’ and return to playing bluegrass leading into a storming breakdown version of ‘Black Mountain Juice’: my first introduction to this totally mad genre.
The two tracks that completely took my breath away were both written by Peter Rowan. One told the story of their journey to Ireland exploring links between their music and Celtic folk. The second, ending the first side, was ‘Rising O’ The Bones’ referencing the Kent State massacre showing that country music wasn’t as reactionary as I’d believed. When the Mekons embraced country music I realised that I wasn’t the only one making this musical journey.