Music that should be on your radar this year

August 7, 2009 at 4:58 pm (music criticism)

Buddy & Julie Miller “Written in Chalk”

Sam Baker “Mercy”

Ha Ha Tonka “Buckle in the Bible Belt”

Gurf Morlix “Last Exit to Happyland”

Slaid Cleaves “Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away”

Deer Tick “Deer Tick”

Lucinda Williams “Little Honey”


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one touch of nature

November 24, 2007 at 4:36 pm (lyrics, music criticism, songwriting) (, , , , , )

They just don’t write songs like “My Mother Was A Lady” anymore. Published in New York City in 1895 by Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern and first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 as “Mother Was A Lady”, the song tells the story of a waitress, who having been insulted by two drummers in a fine restaurant, turns on her tormentors to let them know just who she is, who her mother is, and who her brother is. Here are the lyrics:

Two drummers sat at dinner in a grand hotel one day,
While dining they were chatting in a jolly sort of way;
And when a pretty waitress brought them a tray of food,
They spoke to her familiarly in a manner rather rude.

At first she did not notice them or make the least reply,
But one remark was passed that brought the teardrops to her eye;
And facing her tormentor, with cheeks now burning red,
She looked a perfect picture as appealingly she said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

She told him and he cried again, “I know your brother, too,
Why, we’ve been friends for many years and he often speaks of you;
He’ll be so glad to see you, and if you’ll only wed,
I’ll take you to him as my wife, for I love you since you said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister, who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

In the chorus and the following verse the songwriter does two brilliant things. The waitress confronts the men with the realization that, far from being an object for them to use, she is a daughter, a sister, and a stranger in need of protection.

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

This “touch of nature” that “makes the whole world kin” seems largely alien to today’s songwriting. In our own day and age I wonder whether a hotel waitress would dare revealing such personal information, or whether two men today would even “get” the truth before them.

After this beautiful scene, the drummer who was ashamed immediately turns to wanting to help the young woman—by proposing marriage. Would this really work? Social structures have changed so much today, it’s hard to relate to the characters’ appeal to family and protection. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe persons are not completely autonomous and detached. Maybe it could happen again that a waitress would happen into a new city in search of her brother, and find him through a lewd drummer ashamed of himself, repentant, and helpful at the same time. In any case, the appeal to human community, to an original basis of relation, to respect and dignity in a disarming and enlightening way is refreshing to this listener’s ear.

I was first introduced to it through Johnny Cash’s version in the album “Personal File.” Cash slowed it way down from Jimmie Rodger’s version in 1928, emphasizing each tender moment. I gather from Jimmie Rodger’s recording that the original music had a livelier rhythm through out, that slowed only for the chorus and verse I highlighted.

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Musings on Folk Music, David Fillingim

May 11, 2007 at 1:37 pm (connections, music criticism)

I just finished reviewing the book Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) for the journal Studies in Popular Culture. I heartily recommend it to any Woody Guthrie fan and to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the American working-class in the first half of the twentieth century.


The book also tells the story of an important chapter in the evolution of American popular music. Guthrie’s career spans the period of the origins of the recording industry, which corresponded with the origins of music copyright laws. Guthrie was a transitional figure—the last of the breed of folksingers who functioned as documentary historians and even journalists. Before the rise and explosion in popularity of the mass media, news of catastrophic events like floods, storms, mining accidents, train wrecks, shipwrecks, etc., was often preserved and disseminated by traveling troubadours who told the stories in song. Such “Event Songs” were common in early recorded country music. Guthrie was a compiler of songs as well as a songwriter, and the folksongs he collected in his travels include numbers later attributed to A.P. Carter and Hank Williams


Though Carter is credited with the copyright for most of the Carter family songs, he probably composed very few if any of them. Because copyright laws were new, the first to register a song owned it. The treasure trove of traditional songs free for the picking is part of what inspired Victor Records to send Ralph Peer on his talent search through the deep South, during which both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered in Bristol in 1927. Late in his life, when Carter was criticized for what was by now considered plagiarism, he replied, “I may not have wrote all those songs, but I wrote them all down.” This response not only shows the humor associated with country music culture, but also reflects the oral nature of traditional folk music. Writing the songs down was indeed a major turning point.


Guthrie also wrote many songs down—both songs he himself composed and songs he collected in his travels. Sometimes he combined the two activities by adding to traditional songs new verses that express Guthrie’s sympathy for the travails of working people, or by borrowing a traditional tune to tell a new story.


Guthrie’s best known song, of course, is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote as a protest song—an effort to deconstruct the message of sappy patriotism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s conviction was that the blessings of America were built on the backs of the working class, who weren’t exactly sharing in the benefits of those blessings. Guthrie was frustrated that most of the protest content was dropped from the song as it spread and grew in popularity, and that “This Land” became almost as much a patriotic anthem as the song Guthrie was trying to protest. The irony of singing about “the dust clouds rolling” in the third verse of the popularized version of “This Land” as if the dust clouds were part of America’s bounty has apparently been lost on millions of schoolchildren and their songleaders.

The story of “This Land” teaches another important lesson about folk music—a category that sometimes includes country music. The measure of folk music is not in the intentions of the artists/producers, but in the music’s appropriation and use by the folk. 

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On Johnny Cash: What I Wish I’d Said, David Fillingim

March 8, 2007 at 8:16 pm (artist profile, music criticism)

One question I’ve been asked repeatedly is why I didn’t write about Johnny Cash in Redneck Liberation.  This was not an intentional omission.  But when I was constructing the various arguments in the book, for some reason, Johnny Cash and his songs did not pop up in my head.  So here are some of the thins I wished I’d said about Johnny Cash in Redneck Liberation. 

            One of the central themes in Redneck Liberation involves the construction of romantic love as ultimate power—as a force that directs and controls human lives—and as “ultimate concern.”  Several of Cash’s songs follow this central trajectory of country music, most notably “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire,” both of which portray love as an overwhelming power that effects a personal transformation comparable to a religious conversion.

As ultimate power, love can be destructive as well as creative/redemptive. The destructive power of love creates a sense of fated misery, seen in many of Cash’s songs, including “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and his many ventures into the hillbilly gothic tradition that entered country music through the Appalachian adaptation of English folksong and Celtic balladry. Cash’s deep baritone gives songs like “Delia’s Gone” and “Long Black Veil” a particularly dark mood.

Country music’s ability to expose the darkness at the heart of the human condition—what Hank Williams sang about in “Pictures from Life’s Other Side”—is where Cash excelled. Is there a more chilling line in all of recorded music than “I shot a man in
Reno, just to watch him die”? On this theme Cash resembles Flannery O’Connor in trying to prompt thoughts of redemption by plunging deeply in the depths of all that needs to be redeemed. Unlike, O’Connor, Cash completes the fall/redemption cycle by also singing songs of explicit Christian hope from the gospel song tradition.

            Another major emphasis in Redneck Liberation is country music’s version of the “preferential option for the poor.”  Here again Cash provides much reinforcement, not only in the music itself but also in the contexts of the performances. Prison songs and prison settings suggest an identification with society’s outcasts. Like Hank Williams and others, Cash also uses humor to express his identification with working-class folks and social outcasts, as in “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue.”

            Cash was also a lay theologian. One of the ideas I keep in the back of my mind for a future book chapter or conference paper is an analysis of Cash’s Christology. He wrote a novelized version of Christ’s life entitled “The Man in White.” And his mid-career Christological cowboy song “The Greatest Cowboy of them All” has been supplemented in his recordings with producer Rick Rubin with several off-the-wall Christological and apocalyptic numbers.

            These are some of the things I wish I’d written about in Redneck Liberation.            

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Ten important theological country albums

February 1, 2007 at 5:41 pm (music criticism)

Thanks to Dave Fillingim for his Ten Songs. Here’s my top list of albums that I feel perfectly illustrate theologia crucis and theologia relationis. Here’s a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that gets at what I see in these albums:

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it
is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith . . . . By
this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia (repentance); and that is how one becomes a [human being] and a Christian.

1. Steve Earle, I Feel Alright

2. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken

3. Billy Joe Shaver, Victory

4. Uncle Tupelo, No Depression

5. Michelle Shocked, Arkansas Traveler

6. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison

7. Johnny Cash, At San Quentin

8. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

9. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose

10. Wanted: The Outlaws

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The Top Ten Theological Country Songs, David Fillingim

January 31, 2007 at 8:18 pm (music criticism, songwriting)

A while back, a reporter asked me to compile a list of the top five theological Country Songs of all time to use as a sidebar in an article he was writing about religion and country music. He ended up not using the list, so I thought I’d expand it to a “Top Ten” and post it here.

By “theological” I mean any message about ultimate reality or ultimate meanings, not just specifically theistic or Christian or biblical references—though most of the songs on my list include these.

I’d love to hear from readers what songs you would include that I have omitted.

Here’s my list:

1.  Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”—In  this song, Kitty Wells answers Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” which had the same tune. Thompson’s song had placed the blame for broken relationships on misbehaving women. Wells turns the table and blames men for the disorder in the moral universe. At least they agree that God is not to blame.

2.     Hank Williams, “A Picture from Life’s Other Side”—In this song, Luke the Drifter paints a chilling portrait of some of the more tragic possibilities of the human condition, exposing the darkness at the heart of Hank’s picture of reality.

3.     Garth Brooks, “The Dance”—So called “purists” might object to Garth’s inclusion here, but there’s no questioning his impact on the world of country music. “The Dance” is Garth’s signature theological statement, advising listeners to bless rather than curse the fate that brings lost love: Make the most of life and especially of relationships, and be grateful that it was good while it lasted!

4.     Martina McBride, “Independence Day”—In her breakout hit, for which she credits Garth with opening the door, McBride recounts a tragic tale of liberation from patriarchal oppression, drawing on images from biblical apocalyptic and patriotic myth.

5.     Clay Walker, “A Few Questions”—In a departure from the tone of his other hits, Walker offers a meditative exploration of the age-old question, Why do bad things happen to good people? The lyrics to this poignant song allude to God’s speeches from the whirlwind in the biblical book of Job.

6.     Hank Williams, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”—Hank laughs and moans his way to suicide by baptism; listen to this one right after you read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The River.”

7.     Johnny Cash, “The Man Comes Around”—Among the gems from the Man in Black’s valedictory recording sessions with producer Rick Rubin comes this stirring and bizarre catalog of apocalyptic images; see how many biblical allusions you can identify.

8.     George Strait, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”—There’s a famous Zen parable about a guy who stops to eat a strawberry when he’s about to be devoured by ravenous tigers. This song conveys a similar message, without losing the sense of irony endemic to great country music.

9.     Hank Williams, “Be Careful of Stones that You Throw”—Okay, maybe three Hank Williams songs in the top ten is a bit excessive, but this Luke the Drifter recitation is so biblical! It’s a bitter condemnation of hypocrisy with a mournful chorus that alludes to the New Testament book of James and to Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John.

10.  Sawyer Brown, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand”—Though Paul Thorn’s original version of this tune is much better than the cover, kudos to Sawyer Brown for taking a chance on this off the wall gospel romp and putting it on the country charts.  Once you’ve been to the Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, you won’t want to go to church anywhere else.

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What is hard country?

January 7, 2007 at 3:20 pm (music criticism)

What do I mean by “hard” country? Good question. No easy answer. Well, I want to be inclusive with this description of a genre within a genre. I have two sources of definition in mind. First is Barbara Ching’s book Wrong’s What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture, NY: Oxford, 2001. Second is the work of Tex Sample, sociologist of religion and director of the Network for the Study of US lifestyles.Tex has written a small library of books on Hard living music, people, and culture. I have in mind to use his work as a ready resource. Hard Country music is lifestyle music. Its about hard living that usually involves hard drinking, broken relationships, intense sorrow and loss.

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country, an intro

January 3, 2007 at 2:00 am (music criticism)

There’s something completely existential about country music. It is a stream that has fed pop, rock, and folk for years and has been fed by them. As my collection has expanded over the years I’ve come to realize how diverse the music really is. I myself am another erstwhile songwriter, and when listening to a song I’m usually listening for outstanding lyric craft or a unique blend of music. But its very rare that you get both together. In fact most of the time you’re not listening for a song with both. So that’s why when you hear a song crafting both well it just makes your heart jump.

Hard country music as with any other art form requires a modicum of apperception to understand what is really happening in the music. This is not what I’d originally been led to believe. Country has a serious stereotype attached to it: hayseed and hillbilly music. The uninitiated response to a “foot stompin number” is “Yeeeeee Haw.”

Believe it or not, country is a very inclusive form of music. To peer through the ‘History of the Grand Ole Opry’ for instance is to become acquainted with a most eclectic blend of human songcrafting. Its easy to see country as white hats, starched shirts and line dancing. Whats harder to picture is the impact of Charley Pride (country’s premier African American artist), former felons David Alan Coe and Merle Haggard, the man in black Johnny Cash, and on the bluegrass side Bela Fleck, Jerry Garcia, and David ‘Dawg’ Grisman. Its actually easier to talk about what is accepted within country than what isn’t or hasn’t been. Because country is so inclusive the tendency is for critics and fan clubs to try to represent “True Country” based on their tastes, calling it Classic Country, Americana, Alt. Country, etc. So it really boils down to personal taste. With the rise of internet culture buying habits among music shoppers have become much more personal. Its now possible for even the poorest music collectors to find classic recordings on cd for affordable prices.

One way to get into country is through the themes. Love, rejection, returning, leaving, freedom, bondage, sin and salvation. Personally I listen for love songs that explore love, the earthly and the spiritual, the dirt and the glory, faith in the real world. Country provides a unique atmosphere for songs about social problems and injustice, giving up and starting over, failure and forgiveness, faith and confidence, and thankfulness and security. When you’ve really heard your share of country and I’d like to use the bluegrass genre as an example (because it’s the most familiar), it becomes clear that the music is, if anything, all about reading the heart and exploring its inner activity. Many of the songs are no more than “Dear John Letters” and when you think about it that is very unique today and out of place, except maybe in the Blues. That theme, heard ad nauseum within the music is not one aptly explored anymore. These are the days of music filled with overwhelming emotion about nothing in particular. Songs are so nebulous that they can mean anything to anyone but nothing in particular.. The music itself has lost the need for character because the voices now are overdubbed over synthed music made on computers. Bluegrass on the other hand emphasizes the natural skilled work of each musician in its four to five piece band along with the ability to harmonize in variation.


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