[GUEST POST] Lux Than Zero Selects Country
What can you leave behind, when you're flyin’ lightnin’ fast and all alone?
Lauren messaged me when I was drunk and asked me to contribute something to her new blog. I thought for a long time then decided I’d write something about Country music so I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite jams.
1. Rick Danko - Sip The Wine
WHAT A VOICE. THOSE FIRST THREE LINES! FUCK! This is taken from Danko’s debut solo record. Sadly this album is hard to get hold of but you can get a pretty good download if you search on Google. His delivery and phrasing are so beautiful. It’s nuts that The Band had so many incredible singers in their arsenal.
2. Bonnie Prince Billy - Raining In Darling
I think Will Oldham is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He’s peerless. This song is under two minutes long and manages to capture everything I heart about William. Those vocals in the last 40 seconds, fuck! I try to see him every time he performs in London even though he’s notorious for reworking his songs and giving you strange renditions. Sometimes I find myself sat there telepathically screaming “Stop screwing with it! Just play it the way it is on the record - the way I love it!” One night he came on looking drunk and he was messing around the entire show and then towards the end he said ‘Ok! Cut the shit.’ They stripped the band back to just him and his brothers and they joined together on a song called Weaker Soldier. The harmonies were so beautiful. I remember Dolly Parton talking about when brothers and sisters sing together there is a power and connection between family that just can’t be matched. She called them ‘blood harmonies’.
3. Restless Heart -The Bluest Eyes in Texas
I discovered this when I saw Chloë Sevigny singing it on Karaoke in the movie Boys Don’t Cry (1999). I get shit for liking this song since some see it as cheesy - screw that! This is one of the finest country songs of all time, I find it so haunting. The guy who wrote it said he had the idea for the song after he bumped into an old girlfriend from high school. He dated her until her family moved to Texas. After he bumped into her, all he could think about was how blue her eyes were. Note: I didn't have this song on my iPhone 4S, so I downloaded it…but I accidentally downloaded a live version by mistake, it’s great. Best mistake ever. It has an extended opening with those eerie synths. Damn, I thought I was in Twin Peaks eating cherry pie with Audrey Horne.
4. Gretchen Wilson - When I Think About Cheating
Ok, this is gonna make for two really questionable people I have on the list. I was geared up to rave about Gretchen being the finest vocalist in modern country and how she’s the new Loretta Lynn. Then I read that she’s a republican and performed during a rally for John McCain and Sarah Palin. Let’s ignore the people and focus on the music. This song is a modern classic and a great take on those country tropes of temptation and monogamy.
5. Neil Young & The Band - Helpless
I saw an interview with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and it made me feel less alone with my situation. He confessed to also having to watch The Last Waltz (1978) every couple of months as some kind of cathartic ritual. I love the concert movie so much. The Band sound incredible and the line up is just insane. The audience didn't have a clue who the special guests were to be that night. When they start bringing out stars like Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, The Staple Singers and finally Bob Dylan, the crowd were just in disbelief. Neil Young’s performance is guaranteed to make me cry every time.
Lemme take you through the 3 stages of me becoming an teary eyed wreck:
1. When Neil takes the stage and says “ I’d just like to say before I start that’s its one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be on this stage with these people here tonight.”
2. Neil Young has the saddest sounding harmonica in the world.
3. Then there’s the moment. The moment when Neil smiles and runs over to join Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko at the microphone for the chorus, shouting ‘HELPLESS, HELPLESS, HELPLESS.’ It gets me every time. It’s a real honest and beautiful moment. They’re singing about loneliness and heartbreak but there’s so much hope and fight in their voices.
a) I love how cool Young looks in that military jacket and the fact he’s high on gutter glitter.
b) One time I turned on the commentary track and Robbie said sometimes they’d see Neil Young walk along the beach alone and he looked like the loneliest guy in the world. But they’d always leave him alone thinking this is part of his process.
c) I have one grudge! Joni Mitchell. Aside from the fact she’s looking like she’s about to get pigs blood thrown over her at the prom, her warbling vocals throughout Helpless piss me off so hard. Don’t get me wrong I like Joni, but she almost killed this song for me. When Neil sings “Babe can you hear me now?” And she sings “I can hear youuuuu” she is ruining all the beauty, sadness and desperation. It’s not a call and response! To me the song is about loss and hope and Joni slaps a shitty happy ending on it. And seriously WTF is she doing behind that weird red curtain? Hate you for that Joni!
5. George Strait - Amarillo by Morning
I met this girl called Jessica, Real talk - she was one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen… seriously, she looked like a white Ronnie Ronette. Anyway I promised I’d make her a mix CD for her birthday…don’t judge me ok. I knew she liked Country music so I had this idea of mixing old and new country…original concept right? I needed an old school classic and my mind was just blank so I downloaded CMT 100 Best Country Songs of All Time; which is kinda cheating in the world of mix CDs but screw that High Fidelity bullshit! This song started and that violin part hit me instantly. I also love those classic country lines about losing everything and keeping on going. And again that violin part! It reminds me of the Angelo Badalamenti score to The Straight Story (1997), which is a masterpiece btw. Check that out too.
6. The Band - Unfaithful Servant
- Music from Big Pink (1968)
- The Band (1969)
- The Last Waltz DVD (1976) - also watch it with commentary track with Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese.
- It Makes No Difference - Northern Lights – Southern Cross
- When I Paint My Masterpiece - Cahoots (1971)
- Rumor - Stage Fright (1970)
- Daniel and the Sacred Harp - Stage Fright (1970)
7. David Allan Coe - You Never Even Called Me By My Name
I used to hang out at a local venue. My friends worked there so we’d hang back after closing time. One night I was talking to a dude from this band after a show I said “Oh man I love this jam by David Allan Coe!” He gave me this look of shock and paused then said “you know much about that guy?” I said “No, I just heard his song recently and I can’t stop playing it…” He told me to look him up and it turns out he may be the most controversial musician in country music history. He served 22 years in various reform schools and prisons for crimes ranging from armed robbery to car theft. There have been questions and allegations of him being a white supremacist after he recorded some crazy album called underground that Neil Strauss described as “among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.” The more I read about Coe, the more I’m not buying these accusations. Decide for yourself, regardless this is a true classic country song. The chorus is huge!
8. Iris DeMent - My Life
One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. The fragility in her voice is so powerful. The song is about reflecting on how you spent your life, the choices you made and the time you have. They’re some heavy themes. When she sings, “My life, it's tangled in wishes, and so many things that just never turned out right” it just tears you down. And the final “Oh, oh oh. Oh oh” just wipes you out.
9. Gram Parsons - Hickory Wind
My all time favourite vocalist. I remember being with an old girlfriend on our anniversary and going to a Gram Parsons anniversary memorial show at the Union Chapel Church in London. There were about 13 artists performing and at the end his daughter came out wearing a huge diamond encrusted belt buckle reading GP and said in her southern accent “I wanted to do a show for Daddy to make him proud.” For the encore Evan Dando came out wearing a T-Shirt reading “Snoop Dogg For President”. He led everyone in a version of Wild Horses. I remember there was this old school country singer, he took off his hat and held it over his heart as he sang his verse. There’s not much new to say about Gram. That voice was just untouchable. The sadness it evoked was astounding. My favourite story is Keith Richards saying anytime Gram would get up and perform in bars or in clubs there would be at least one barmaid or glass collector who’d start crying. These girls heard country every night, sad singers aren't anything new but something about Grams voice would just cut through to the heart.
10. Songs: Ohia - Blue Chicago Moon
I try not to think about Jason Molina too much because it makes me sad. It’s an all-too common story: he was a critically acclaimed songwriter but he wasn’t hugely known. He didn’t make much money in his musical career. He passed away in tragic circumstances way too soon. For the longest time The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) was my favourite album of his but my friend Michael kept talking about Didn’t It Rain. When I first heard it, it was too stripped down compared to Magnolia Electric Co. About six months later I listened to Didn’t It Rain (2002) from start to finish walking home at 1am and I got it. It’s a really sparse and quiet record. The album sounds like it was recorded one night around 3am; the lyrics about the moon, lightning, birds and ghosts. The atmosphere, the darkness, the silences, the creeks, the acoustics…they’re all players on this record. This is my favourite song by Jason and it’s the final song on the album. It’s about depression and beating it.
Jason Molina spent the last few years struggling with illness and debt due to medical bills. I remember reading when he collapsed he had nothing but a mobile phone with only his grandmother’s number stored. That’s not to say his friends and family weren’t there for him. Henry Owings, a friend of his said it best, “Jason leaves behind him an enviable body of work that will be continually rediscovered because what Jason wrote wasn't fashion. It was his heart. It was his love. It was his demons. And ultimately, it brought his life to an end.”
Listen, if you’re already a fan of Jason or you find yourself getting into his stuff, if you like the music, if you’re moved by it, if you feel the pain he’s singing; then you can contribute to the Jason Molina fund here. All funds are for the family to cover medical bills and funeral costs.
Also No Love For Ned is offering you a download of a 16-channel professional recording that sounds amazing. You can stream the eighty minute set here if you're curious. Anyone who donates just forward the paypal receipt to (firstname.lastname@example.org) and he’ll send you a bandcamp code for an uncirculated meco show from 2007.
One more for Jason...
Steven T. Hanley lives in London Town.
He makes films and writes a blog for Vice Magazine.