March 2, 2007
Countrypolitan — an outgrowth of the Nashville sound of the ’50s —
is among the most commercially oriented genres of country music. The Nashville sound emerged in the ’50s as a way to bring country music to a broad pop audience. The movement was led by Chet Atkins, who was the head of RCA Records’ country division. Atkins designed a smooth, commercial sound that relied on country song structures but abandoned all of the hillbilly and honky tonk instrumentation. He hired session musicians and coordinated pop-oriented, jazz-tinged productions. ... In the late ’60s, the Nashville sound metamorphosed
into countrypolitan, which emphasized these kinds of pop production flourishes. Featuring layers of keyboards, guitars, strings, and vocals, countrypolitan records were designed to cross over to pop radio and they frequently did.
It was the more excessive countrypolitan sounds of early-’70s Nashville (as well as the creative stranglehold exerted by Nashville’s record labels) that prompted the Willie ’n’ Waylon outlaw revolt that briefly turned the country-industrial complex on its head 30-some years ago. You could argue it also sparked Buck Owens’ Bakersfield rebellion.
It’s natural for me to side with the rebels against the establishment in situations like this and to vilify the purveyors of countrypolitan for trying to smooth over good, raw American hillbilly sounds for lowly purposes of filthy lucre.
The only thing is — and I’m sure Willie and Waylon would agree — the countrypolitan era produced some great music.
Sure, there was crap and pap like Johnny Tillotson, “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” Eddie Arnold’s squishier moments, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” Ronnie Milsap, and Olivia Newton John’s tenure as a “country” singer. And sure, it was countrypolitan that later morphed into the Urban Cowboy scare of the ’80s and the Hot New Country scourge of the ’90s. And it’s probably to blame for Kenny Rogers as well.
But give the countrypolitans credit where it’s due. What would American music be like without Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves or Tammy Wynette or Charlie Rich? And my Okie hero Roger Miller was considered countrypolitan — and if you’re running down Roger, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of me.
Southern Culture on the Skids, that surf-guitar/trashabilly/voodoo-and-fried-food-obsessed trio from North Carolina, recognizes the value of this misunderstood music. SCOTS’s new album is titled Countrypolitan Favorites. And indeed, this all-covers affair includes some prize tunes of the genre.
The musicians do a version of one of the first singles I ever bought in the early ‘60s, Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain.” They do raw renditions of Taos resident Lynn Anderson’s hit “Rose Garden” and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” They cover the wife-swapping classic “Let’s Invite Them Over,” originally recorded by George Jones in 1963 (and more recently recorded just a few years ago by John Prine and Iris DeMent).
And they do a respectful and respectable take on a Roger Miller song, “Engine Engine # 9,” with railroad drums and a Floyd Cramerish piano as well as Rick Miller’s trademark surfy guitar.
There’s “Tobacco Road,” a song that bounced around between rock ’n’ roll bands and soul singers — from The Blues Magoos to Lou Rawls. But it was written by Nashville tunesmith John D. Loudermilk.
Don’t expect the same kind of overproduction that glumped up so much of the country music of the countrypolitan era. Most of these songs sound much closer to the hard-twanging, R & B-informed style of SCOTS than the slick Nashville studio sounds of Owen Bradley or Billy Sherrill. Miller and crew don’t make the mistake of trying to camp up these songs.
They keep the yodels on “Wolverton Mountain,” but they add an Augie Meyers-like, “96 Tears”-style organ for a Tex-Mex flavor. And Miller’s snarling guitar intro to “Rose Garden” never would have been found on a Lynn Anderson record — though I bet Lynn wouldn’t have any problems with Mary Huff’s vocals here.
And as for “Tobacco Road,” the biggest surprise here is that SCOTS hasn’t recorded this classic before now. It dealt with Southern culture on the skids long before there was a band named after the phenomenon.
But don’t expect to find only countrypolitan classics on Countrypolitan Favorites. For some reason it also includes a bunch of rock songs by the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Kinks, The Byrds, and even T. Rex.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of these sound fine, especially the Kinks’ country rocker “Muswell Hillbilly.” (There’s that garage-band organ again.) The relatively obscure Creedence tune “Tombstone Shadow” sounds like it was written for SCOTS. And Huff makes Wanda Jackson’s rockabilly torch song “Funnel of Love” her own.
But I would have preferred if SCOTS had stuck to the theme and rescued more lost countrypolitan songs. Jim Reeves’ “Distant Drums,” written about a soldier going to Vietnam, would be just as meaningful today. The group could have worked magic with Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” or Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” Huff would sound great interpreting just about any of Wynette’s hits.
She even might have been able to redeem “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”