Throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s, country music started moving into the cities. As this happened, it started resembling pop music more and more -- larger bands, more ballads, less "soul." The production skyrocketed as well, and twenty-person ensembles suddenly manned songs that were about drinking alone on the porch.
The first time I heard Marty Robbins's classic Gunfighter Ballads, I was on a road trip with my parents going to Utah. While I snuggled tightly in a makeshift fort in the back of our Toyota 4Runner, my dad popped in the cassette. I dropped my Gameboy and sat and listened to the stories of Billy the Kid, the stranger with a big iron on his hip, and falling in with an outlaw gang. It was like an adventure story in song form.
I didn't think much about this moment again until my early twenties, when I was working at a record store and Gunfighter Ballads was sitting in the new-arrivals bin. I popped it in and began a record-buying spree that simply wouldn't stop.
Now I have countless 45s of songs available nowhere else, LPs that have never been released on CD, and not one, but three compilations of trucker songs, including some of my favorites, "Phantom 309," "Give Me Forty Acres," and "Giddy Up Go."
I've tried my best to convince others of the greatness of some of these songs. Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons" is one of my all-time favorite songs. Hoyt Axton's "Ten Thousand Sunsets" is a song that anyone who has spent an evening listening to music with me has heard on one occasion or another. Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is phenomenal, and probably the only song from this era that other people seem to like.
A lot of these songs became crossover hits -- by the '60s, it stopped really sounding like country, save for the use of certain instrumentation. Take another one of my favorites, The Statler Brothers, "Flowers on the Wall." The banjo is about the only thing "country" about the song -- unless you consider "smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo" country lyrics.
"Flowers on the Wall"
Some other highlights before I move on: "Another Man Loved Me Last Night," performed by Norma Jean, George Jones performing "She Thinks I Still Love Her," Roger Miller's "Chug-A-Lug," and Ray Stevens's "Everybody Needs a Rainbow." I haven't even talked about heavy hitters like Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash -- mostly because I don't feel like I would need to justify liking them, but also because they've crossed over into the world of just being "classics."
Some people might want to chalk this up to some Gen-Y irony, and I don't have any really convincing argument against that -- other than the fact I've spent hundreds of dollars on these records and have listened to them more than I have to most modern bands. If you don't believe me, feel free to hit me up when I'm out and about for a mix tape; I'd be more than happy to make one for you.
It might be time I woke up and started acting my age and not like a sixty-year-old man sitting on the floor drinking whiskey and listening to songs about booze and women -- but I just don't see the point at this stage. If nothing else, the classic Tom T. Hall song "I Like Beer" will keep me company into my old age.
"I Like Beer"