Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mature Music for Mature People

Robbie Fulks, in the liner notes to his superb new album, Georgia Hard, writes "The middle-aged and -class perspective that dominated the country songwriting of the day [the 1970s] was an aberration; outside Broadway, it flourished in no other era or style over a solid century of American lyrical music. It's Nashville origins are in the early Sixties, when Hank Williams' posthumous grip was relaxing. Writers like Bill Anderson and Roger Miller were then gentrifying country, expanding its reach and mainstreaming its moral tone, softening Baptist fervor into urbane mood-indigo, replacing hell-raising and hayriding with marriages and mortgages. Country-for-grownups was no less an art (and no less "country") than the older version, its account of human experience being just as honest, eye-opening, sensitively crafted, and unmistakably lived-in."

Fulks' new album was written with these kind of songs in mind. First of all, it's a great album, which I'll get to more in a minute. But more interestingly, is the point of the album. Maybe it's just the point I've reached in my life, but I've really started appreciating songs that speak to the kind of experiences that people over the age of 25 have: not only falling in love, but losing that love, fighting to keep that love going, divorce, childraising, struggling to make it, losing loved ones to death, trying to fight off death ourselves, working in crappy jobs, alcoholism--in other words, the kind of experiences you and I have had. Who has not had at least some of these experiences? These are the experiences of life. Now I wouldn't necessarily want to listen to this kind of music all the time--the subject matter is a little on the depressing side I suppose. Though in fact, many of these songs can be downright hilarious and on Fulks' album many are. But I appreciate songwriting that speaks to my post-age 25 life.

Georgia Hard may be the best album of Fulks' career. He's probably best known for his anti-Nashville anthem "Fuck This Town", but in fact he's got a sensibility far more interesting than just writing Hank III style songs about the suckiness of Nashville. His album 13 Country Classics was an album of forgotten country songs that played perfectly into his mix of traditional country, odd humor, and dismissive attitude of pretension. These traits are in full force on Georgia Hard. He rips apart pretensious roots music purists in "Countrier Than Thou". Given that I loathe purism in music I have a particular affinity for this song. He has a classic stupid-funny country song about a man getting really drunk and hitting on a woman. Thing is that he is so drunk that he doesn't really that the woman he's hitting on is already his wife ("I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)). But most of the album is in the style of 70s country. Hell, even the album cover is reminiscent of a classic 70s country album. These are songs written for people who have lived. "Coldwater, Tennessee" is a great song about growing up poor in a southern town who makes it big in Nashville, but only briefly. "I Never Did Like Planes" is a great break-up song. "Georgia Hard" is about a man who followed his woman from the South to Chicago but the woman left him and now he's stuck in a shitty apartment and a pointless job and he's real depressed. "All You Can Cheat" is another good cheatin' song about a man who may be doing it in a cheap hotel but at least it's all you can cheat all night long. "Doin' Right (For All The Wrong Reasons) is a song about a man who is in a bad marriage and desperately wants to cheat but he can't because he is the vice-president of his father-in-law's company who is retiring soon. Who wouldn't like a song like that? I know I do. Now of course I can't relate directly to this experience, not only for the obvious reasons but because who the hell would ever hire me to be the vice-president of a company?

If you're thinking that I have a thing for cheating songs, you're totally right. What a great subject for songs.

Not only are these subjects classic country themes, but they are themes that epitomize what is great about country music--the experiences of everyday people going through everyday problems. We forget about this core quality of country music, not only in the Nashville shit coming out but in the neo-Outlaw stuff that people who have really good taste in music listen to. The first time I listened to Georgia Hard I became visibly excited as I heard the kind of songs I had not been exposed to in a very long time.

I started thinking about other albums that catered to the everyday experiences of regular people. Don Rigsby's The Midnight Call was the first album I thought of. I believe I may have extolled the virtues of this album before on the blog but I am going to again. Not only is The Midnight Call have some of the strangest songs I've ever heard but it is also geared for the kind of life experience that I love. Take "Should Have Carved Our Names In Stone."

"I was 10 and she was 9
When we walked down by the creek
I carved our names and promises on an old beech tree
We ran and played for hours around an old corn field
Now looking back none of that seems real

She's 29, I'm 30
As we walked in the courtroom
They're dividing everything between the bride and groom
Sitting there, my mind slipped back to the day down by the creek
Where I carved the names and promises on an old beech tree

I didn't know that wind and rain could make a promise fade
I didn't realize that life would change from that day
If I had only known what I know now,
Would have changed our fate someway somehow
But I was just boy, how could I have known?

I should have carved our names in stone"

Jesus Christ. Who cannot relate to that song on some level? There are millions of songs about breakups, but how many get to the heart of the matter in this way? How many are this eloquent? Frankly, how many punch you in the gut like this?

Then there's othergreat songs like "Dyin' To Hold Her Again", about a man whose wife has died and he is drinking himself to death because he can't live without her. A truly wonderful song. Sadder than hell but so true to life. "Little White Cross Out On Highway 13" is sung from a father's perspective whose daughter was killed in car accident the night before high school graduation. "Muddy Water" is a good song about the West Virginia floods of 2001, which I got married in but that's a story for a different time. "Come In Out of the Rain", another great piece, is about a man who can't get over a breakup but knows he won't be getting back together with his woman. Finally, "I've Already Turned That Page," is a great way to end an album that is pretty maudlin. This song is just about moving on. There's nothing you can do to change the past, so what choice do you have? Can anyone claim this is not true? This is a bluegrass album, but really it transcends any category. Not only does it not really sound like a Bill Monroe album, the lyrics are so powerful that they transcend the music. Just an unbelievably wonderful album.

A bit of an aside, but Rigsby isn't a songwriter. All the songs were written by other people. But I believe that most of the songs were written for him. Does that change the quality of the album? No. Some people have quite the songwriting fetish. Writing songs is great but just because you aren't good at it doesn't mean that you can't be an amazingly powerful musician.

I was thinking of a rock album that was really written for mature people. Obviously, rock and roll is not exactly designed for this kind of thing. But Peter Gabriel's Us really stands out here, especially the first three songs, "Come Talk to Me," "Love to Be Loved" and "Blood of Eden." Gabriel's anguished, and by 1992 slightly aged, voice really delivers a powerful punch. I wish I could think of more rock records that really fit into the mold of Us but I guess I can't.

In any case, all three of these albums really present songs that are geared toward the kind of powerful life experiences that we all share. Of course there's nothing wrong with a little escapism in music too but I can't cherish an escapist album in the same way that I do these three. They touch me in very deep ways.