18 April 2015
The twangs and rhythms of country music were etched into my childhood. It was on the radio, on the large stereo in the lounge, blasting from speakers, which as a small child were taller than I was. And on TV of course―Dolly Parton, for various reasons, was fascinating, and Kenny Rogers with his immaculately trimmed beard.
But mostly it was in the backseat of the car on family trips. I remember a six cassette tape set with a title like Country Greats. There was plenty of the polished Nashville sound, but also darker stuff like Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line. And songs that told stories of another world, like El Paso by Marty Robbins, which was magic to a kid who loved watching the westerns that screened regularly on TV in the weekends. Here was a mythical America, which through exposure―and the lack of anything else very mythical―meant something to a boy growing up in suburban Whangarei. There was lots I didn’t like. A certain steel guitar sound (you know it) always made me feel a bit sick in the stomach―though that might be my musical memories mixing with my memory of queasiness traveling winding Northland roads.
As a teenager, country music was the antithesis of good music. Never-the-less when at university in Auckland, and delving deep into the alternative music scene, I still thought it would be a good idea to go with my father to see Johnny Cash and June Carter at the Auckland Town Hall. To my surprise it remains one of the best concerts I’ve been to. Great songs, slick musicians and the charisma of Cash and Carter had me hooked. Soon after I discovered Alt Country, with new bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco becoming passionate favourites.
The best country music is rooted in the combination of simple rhythms and melodies, with lyrics that are often about sadness, loss and heartache. It’s been said that country music is the blues for white people. It’s that balance between dark and light, joy and sorrow, that makes it sound true.
So when I found out that New Zealand country music star Tami Neilson was playing at The Old Stone Butter Factory in town I had to go. There were three support acts whose musicianship was equal to the main act. They sung curious original songs that mixed a world and sound from a distant America with observations and experiences of life in this country in the 21st century. I guess love gone wrong is universal.
Neilson, as one of her songs says, is a dynamite of a woman with a great vocal range. There were sad love songs, but also happy ones belted out to an infectious rockabilly beat that had people up and dancing.
Surveying the mixture of ages in the audience I wondered how many of the younger crowd had grown up listening to their parent’s country music collections, who once knew all the words to Jolene, singing along in the back of the car on a dusty country road heading on a family summer holiday. The lyrics, a barely understood but intriguing glimpse into a complex adult world of jealously and desire. It’s the stuff of life that never goes away, like country music.