The straight-talking monthly column on all things country, Americana, roots and acoustic…
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader of music magazines. In the pre-internet days, it was my main source of information, and for a keen music fan like myself, information has always been like gold dust …
I am always seeking it out. Whenever I got my hands on a new issue of a magazine, having perused the Contents page, I would turn to the Letters page. Though I was very interested in other music fans views, quite often readers’ letters would throw up information that a writer might have missed in a previous feature.
Sadly, Readers’ Letters have disappeared from music magazines as email, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have taken over as our main communication tools. I readily admit that I find it quite interesting following some of the Social Media threads, as they often throw up some very useful information.
It’s also a very good way to gauge the views of people; and seeing all the negative comments going around about TV personality Shane Ritchie ‘going country’, piqued my interest.
The main criticism seemed to be ‘how dare he presume that he can sing country’, as if country music is some kind of hallowed style that can only be performed by those individuals that so-called experts, and passionate fans,, deem as being suitable.
Kylie & Justin
A few weeks after the Shane Ritchie kerfuffle came the news that Kylie Minogue had travelled to Nashville to record, followed by Justin Timberlake including hints of country on his latest album. This set Social media in freefall as the knives came out against this pair of interlopers.
It was as if no other pop act had ever dabbled in country music; suddenly a new phenomenon had hit the music world. Of course, this flies in the face of the facts. Since American marketing machinery had devised different musical genres back in the early days of the 20th century, there have always been performers dabbling in musical styles outside of their perceived style.
When recording companies struck gold with rural music from Appalachia in the 1920s, everyone and their uncle jumped on the bandwagon. In 1924, Vernon Dalhart (pictured below), a vaudeville entertainer well-loved for performing operatic arias, popular songs and World War I ditties, became the first ‘country performer’ to gain widespread recognition; with his recording of mountain musician Henry Whitter’s The Wreck Of The Old ’97, backed up with The Prisoner’s Song, that provided him with lasting success.
Released on Victor, it became a massive hit, reputedly selling more than six million copies, making it the biggest-seller of the pre-electric period. Later, such well-known popular singers as Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Cliff Richard and Tom Jones have all dabbled with country music.
In the 1960s it would not be unreasonable to claim that there was a similarity between many of the country-pop hits of the day, by singers like Jim Reeves, Leroy Van Dyke, Don Gibson, Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline and the pop hits by Joe Brown (A Picture Of You), Englebert Humperdinck (Release Me, Am I That Easy To Forget), Cliff Richard (The Minute You’re Gone) and Karl Denver (Mexicali Rose).
It was this similarity that helped bona fide country acts such as Jim Reeves, Faron Young, Eddy Arnold, Hank Locklin and Don Gibson to regularly score UK pop hits. This in turn led to homegrown country acts such as the Hillsiders, Little Ginny, the Jonny Young Four and Frank Jennings Syndicate to emerge, followed by the proliferation of British country music clubs.
It is for this reason that I have absolutely no problem with pop artists recognising and performing country music. This recognition and endorsement of country music isn’t just restricted to the 1960s. It has continued unabated right through to the present day. And there’s always been this animosity towards any performers that dabble in the music.
When country-rock band The Byrds appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in March 1968, the long-haired hippies were loudly heckled by the conservative country music fans, despite legendary steel guitarist Lloyd Green playing with them, and their two-number set being rather subdued renditions of You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Hickory Wind, both songs now readily acknowledged as an integral part of the country music canon.
The Byrds on The Grand Ole Opry…
Six years later, when Australian singer Olivia Newton-John was named the 1974 Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year, defeating more established Nashville-based nominees Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker, it caused outrage and led to the formation of the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) by the more ‘traditional’ country artists.
In 2016, when interviewed on the CMA Awards Red Carpet, Olivia admitted that she owed her whole career to country music and there wasn’t a shred of bad feeling towards the country music community that had snubbed her.
John Denver was another ‘non-country’ performer who was treated shamefully by the Nashville country music community, with Charlie Rich setting light to the envelope which announced that the mop-haired singer had been named the 1975 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year.
There’s been similar kick-backs in the UK, one that springs to mind is Geordie singer-actor Jimmy Nail. In 1994, he turned to country music with the hits Crocodile Shoes, Cowboy Dreams and Big River. They were all highly credible recordings. He took his ‘country’ band on an extensive UK tour, with Nashville-based country singer Deana Carter as his special guest, as he played to sold out audiences across the country.
If you read the country press at the time, both the Readers Letters and editorial features, you’d have thought that poor Jimmy had committed treason, rather than introducing the unsuspected public to a healthy dose of country music.
Rubbing shoulders with a Beatle…
Ringo Starr is another performer who has been ridiculed for his incursions into country music. I recall being backstage at the London Palladium in 1969, when the legendary Hank Snow made his UK debut, and rubbing shoulders with the Beatles’ drummer, who was as enamoured as I was at being in the presence of one of his all-time idols. I proudly admit that I bought Ringo’s 1970 Nashville album Beacoups Of The Blues and that it remains one of my favourite albums of the era.
Other pop singers that have dabbled with country include Neil Diamond (a long-time Waylon Jennings’ fan), Ronan Keating, Tom Jones and Gene Pitney. None of them could ever be considered genuine country singers, but they’ve all brought new listeners to the music over the years.
Which brings us back to Shane Richie. He’s certainly not the world’s greatest singer (but in technical terms, neither was the late Johnny Cash), but A Country Soul is a well-produced, homegrown country album. It’s not the kind of country music I would listen to, but it’s inoffensive, and Richie expertly handles singalong ditties like Pat Green’s Wave On Wave and Wagon Wheel.
Despite his vocal limitations, there is little doubt that he is passionate in his love of country music, and if he leads more people to discovering and enjoying the ‘real’ thing, then in my book, that is good.
By Alan Cackett
Kylie Minogue photo: Jason Sheldon