The Long Road To Country

Originally posted April 9, 2007

For a long, long time, I didn’t care much for country music.

Part of that was the era of my youth: In the later 1950s and through the 1960s, country was – as it had been since its rise in the 1920s – the music of kinship for those on the land, almost certainly giving those Americans whose lives were still rural a stronger sense of identity. (The fact that the rise of country music also gave performers, producers, radio stations and record companies a strong source of income is not lost on me, but country music had, I believe, as strong a social function as it did a commercial one.) And as I grew up in a small city during that time – St. Cloud had a population of just more than 30,000 in the early 1960s – the last thing we city kids wanted to be was country kids.

I imagine that not many of us were more than one generation removed from the land ourselves – my mom grew up on a farm and my dad spent at least part of his childhood living on a farm. But it seems to me, looking back, that being from the country – even in elementary school – laid a burden on kids. I know for sure that by the time junior high rolled around, the hotshot cool kids – whose contempt for others, I imagine, was nothing more than an attempt to persuade themselves that they were okay – had no greater insult for another kid than to call him or her “farmer.”

And none of us listened to country music. Most kids, by the time, say, 1965 rolled around, were listening to rock and pop; the administration at my junior high school allowed us, when we were finished with lunch, to walk down to the gym and listen to records. I have a vivid memory from seventh grade of a young woman named Marlys dancing energetically, perhaps to the Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” in her short-for-the-times skirt, chartreuse tights and glistening silver boots. (I recall teasing her about her tights and boots at a reunion years later; she replied, “But you noticed me, didn’t you?”)

The point is that none of my contemporaries listened to country. Nor did I. I listened to lots of things that weren’t rock: Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass and Al Hirt were my favorites, which left me outside, listening in, a lot of the time, but not as far outside as I would have been had I loved country music.

Oh, there were country radio stations around. The adjacent small town of Sauk Rapids was home to WVAL, which played country from the time it came on the air at sunrise to the time it went off the air at sunset. And on Saturdays when my dad would putter around in his basement workshop or do something out in the garage, his radio was tuned to 800 on the AM dial, WVAL. I’m not entirely sure if he really liked country music or if his choice of WVAL was because he didn’t really understand the music beginning to be played at all times of the day on other local stations. Or maybe he liked the reactions he got from me and my sister when we had to ride somewhere with him in his cherished ’52 Ford and had to endure the sounds of Dottie West, Buck Owens and Marvin Rainwater, whom Dad once saw in concert.

I didn’t listen. Even when I was in the old car and I heard the music, I didn’t listen. I guess I didn’t really listen to the music until I was in college, and then only sparingly. I went one evening to a showing on campus of the film The Last Picture Show, which uses for part of its soundtrack country from the era of the film, the late 1940s and early 1950s: songs by Frankie Laine, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell and more. I was caught by the music, filed away in my head the idea of sometime checking it out, and then forgot about it.

Time moved on. I spent some time in the late 1980s romancing a lady who was living in Kansas, and I spent three months in a small town there. I heard a lot of country music, certainly, but it didn’t grab me, although I was polite when my lady played selections from her cherished Alabama collection. I was back in Minnesota when country boomed in the 1990s. I was aware of the boom but still didn’t listen much. I knew by then, certainly, that country was one of the two major well-springs from which much of American popular music arose (the blues being the other). But it wasn’t until two separate events occurred at about the same time that I began to pay any more than polite attention to country.

When the Texas Gal entered my life in 2000, she brought with her a long appreciation for country. (She listens to other things as well, certainly: Her favorite group all-time is the Doobie Brothers.) And I began to listen more closely than I ever had, and I enjoyed a lot of the country I heard, finding myself especially drawn to Brooks & Dunn. And about the same time, I discovered Darden Smith, a Texas native who began his career as a straight country singer and has since moved, as I wrote in my notes on an earlier Saturday Single, to a place near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.

In many ways, the LP I’m sharing today – Native Soil, Darden Smith’s 1986 debut – reminds me of the bedrock country music that was used for The Last Picture Show, although it doesn’t quite have that level of grit. But like the music of the neo-traditionalists that filled the airwaves in the mid-1980s, Native Soil stays close to the roots of country. The sound is guitar, voice and fiddle and a few other stringed instruments for the most part, with piano and drums, and on rare occasion, some horns coming into the mix; along the way, Smith gets some help with harmony vocals from Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Smith wrote all the songs, and the writing is clear and eloquent in its marshalling of day-to-day events and images, especially in “Two Dollar Novels” and “Painter’s Song.”

Track listing:

Bus Stop Bench
Red Sky
Little Maggie
Veteran’s Day
Sticks and Stones
Keep An Open Mind
Painter’s Song
Two Dollar Novels
God’s Will
Clatter and Roll

(There is a skip – maybe two – near the end of “Sticks and Stones” that I could not repair.)

Darden Smith – Native Soil [1986]

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