Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Columns

November, 1968: country-western, minstrels, Jeff and Janis, additions and corrections

Marvin Rainwater or no Marvin Rainwater, I assume it is emblematic of something when Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree Indian--in fact, if I am not being unkind, a professional Cree Indian, in the same honest sense that Dick Gregory, say, is a professional Afro-American--goes to Nashville, Tennessee (read: Music City, U.S.A.), to record an album of her own country-western songs. C&w is, after all, the white man's music. Yet the jacket is right in front of me, graced with a color photograph of Buffy, her characteristic ebony hair and uncharacteristic alabaster teeth gleaming with equal luster, her right eye hidden by a gray slouch hat that presumably goes with the title. Which is: I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again. Now, I believe Buffy when she insists that this effort is nothing more calculating or (ugh) commercial than a long-distance friendship with Chet Atkins, Nashville's elder gittar man. But not everyone can be expected to concur, especially down in Music City, where the record is doubtless taken as one more proof that good country music has taken over. I wouldn't be surprised if someone tried to marry her off to Marvin Rainwater--or Charley Pride.

In New York this interpretation is subject to shrewd modifications on the order of: "Country music is happening, baby!" The industry is trend-hungry, and the best-hyped new thing of the year is America's rediscovery--like Sainte-Marie's "Again," the prefix is of dubious specificity--of c&w. The phenomenon, such as it is, is overdue. I began waiting for it almost three years ago, when I learned that country music dominated the jukebox at Max's Kansas City. A couple of years later I gave up, and sometime after that Bob Dylan released John Wesley Harding, which I take as signaling, if not actually causing, the present boomlet. For despite the hoopla, the revival is small as yet, nothing more than an inevitable accommodation.

In this decade, especially since the Beatles, country music has been the victim of xenophobia. Theoretically, a hip college kid might prefer country culture (although c&w has long since left the country, it still expresses rural values) to that of his parents. When faced with the actual choice--usually while driving across Nebraska--he plays Perry Como (or nothing) in preference to Merle Haggard or Tammy Wynette. When rock and roll was achieving status in the midsixties, little was made of its debt to c&w, even though the Stones dug Gene Pitney, and Chuck Berry himself was a fan of Kitty Wells. Instead, blues roots were emphasized. But as Ray Charles made clear when he began recording country music almost seven years ago, c&w and r&b have much in common.

Both c&w and r&b began as a manifestation of an insular racial (and economic) group from the South who used music to affirm cherished verities in the wake of seismic geographical and cultural movement. Joe Tex, whose soul songs are published by one of the largest c&w firms, Tree, recently tried to reify that spiritual kinship with an album called (naturally) Soul Country. A great idea, if done for love; unfortunately, other considerations appear to have interfered, and the result, though not without its amenities, is Tex's poorest LP.

It does, however, illustrate some affinities. For Tex, country music is a refuge for the rugged, and beleaguered, individualist--trucker, cowboy, outlaw--("Green Green Grass of Home"), for traditional family values ("Set Me Free"), and for simple decency ("Skip a Rope"). It is direct and adult. This traditional honesty, combined with c&w's unique musical virtues--all that dexterous banjo, fiddle, and guitar--accounts for the current wave. C&w seems unspoiled. It has the feel of mass-cult folk music, just like rock and roll before its promotion into rock, or r&b before its elevation into soul. Its voice is distinctly casual, replacing blues with lament, and joyful noise with wacky high-spiritedness.

But note that Tex's record closes with Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey," the classiest schlock of the year and the epitome of what is called modern country. Having changed with its audience like any popular music, c&w is not a very encouraging gauge of what happened to all the dustbowlers who emigrated in the thirties or the Southerners who moved away after the war. It is closer to easy-listening than to bluegrass or blues. For this reason, the line between high camp and great country music is often thin or nonexistent--"Green Green Grass of Home," an almost antinomic good-bad song, was performed at the Newport Folk Festival this year by Joan Baez. This is sometimes a problem in black music, too, but in black music the problem is usually obviated by the beat. And the beat is where c&w, with its hincty two-four, shows its true color.

Since my basic commitment is to rock, I tend to distrust music that doesn't have a beat. I detect in the limpid ballads of Buffy Sainte-Marie a penchant for prettiness that is little more than Guy Lombardo bleh in youth drag. At their respective nadirs, traditional pop and acoustic folk and modern country are equally insipid. Luckily, intelligence and feeling keep folk from hitting its low too often. But what a temptation the rural romanticism of country music must be to those artists who, from Joanie on down, still believe that if only we can somehow simplify everything, life will be lovely again. That seems to be Buffy's idea, and so she has put together a tuneful pastorale that praises the love of a good man, rabbits in the pen, and so forth. Except for the tasteful-to-brilliant work of a predictably professional complement of Nashville sidemen and a new version of "Where Have the Buffalo Gone?," I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again is assimilated music at its emptiest.

I am no c&w aficionado, but I am a fan of a few special country artists--Hank Williams, Roger Miller, Buck Owens, Flatt & Scruggs, Jeannie Seely, Jerry Lee Lewis--and I think Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison is one of the best LP's of the year. Yet even though several of those performers (Miller and Cash especially) are quite self-conscious, I don't judge them the same way I judge Buffy Sainte-Marie. They all get automatic points for innocence. If the object of this attitude were blues, I might deplore it as folkie condescension, but there it is. I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again is a not-bad collection of country songs, but--possibly because it is devoid of endearing crudities--more is necessary, and similar strictures apply to all the others--from Irrelevant Ian and Slick Sylvia to just plain greedy Frankie Laine--who happen to find time in their schedules, this year, for that Nashville album they have always wanted to do.

I like countrified music best, predictably enough, when an original rock song is written for a hard country arrangement ("Ain't No Use" on Moby Grape, "I Am a Child" on Buffalo Springfield Again) or when country elements are incorporated into a total style (as on Buffalo Springfield's beautiful farewell album, Last Time Around, or the much ballyhooed Music from Big Pink). But not always. Next to fuzz-tone, country is gimmick of the year, and while unlike fuzz-tone it doesn't seem to encourage utter tastelessness, it guarantees nothing.

When all this was just beginning, I received an unprepossessing LP called Safe at Home, by the International Submarine Band. The cover depicted a typical rock group, four smiling longhairs, but inside was skillful country music. Presiding was a native of Waycross, Georgia, named Gram Parsons, who selected five country tunes, one Arthur Crudup blues arranged for steel guitar and four original compositions that fit both Parsons and the album; in one he even managed to sing about getting stoned with no strain. The album was an assertion of continuity from Arthur Crudup to Gram Parsons, with country music and all its simple virtues square in the center. In retrospect it seems a good record and a brilliant conception. Yet at the time I listened twice and filed it in the closet.

The album's very subtle defects have become clear to me only after prolonged enjoyment of the Byrds' Sweetheart or the Rodeo. But then, so have its virtues, because Sweetheart of the Rodeo is Safe at Home done perfectly. Parsons is on this record himself, as a Byrd; as sidemen, so are several of his friends. But the reality of the Byrds predominates. The record opens and closes with twin talismans of modernity, Dylan songs from the period of seclusion between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, and those harmonies are unmistakable.

Safe at Home failed because Parsons, with his deep respect for country music, played it too straight. He needed the canted approach of the Byrds, who combine respect with critical distance. The key is a Louvin Brothers waltz on Sweetheart called "The Christian Life," which ends: "I like the Christian life." The mournful, drawling harmonies partake inevitably of camp, but the best kind of camp, suffused with tenderness--a condescending tenderness, I suppose, but what else does the song deserve? Whether they are hoedowning gleefuly through Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" or laying down the refrain of Dylan's "Nothing Was Delivered" ("Take care of your health and get plenty of rest," certainly the ultimate country advice), the Byrds are celebrating values so sublimely simple that we must suspect they are attainable only on record. But we know they admit the same suspicions. This record, by a group that is waning in popularity, exhibits the kind of intelligence that makes me hope the finest artists will be producing good records long after the rock boom and the country boom have been swallowed by the music monolith. That's all I care about anyway.


Today's minstrel does his traveling in a cardboard jacket. Like Woody Guthrie (and Ricky Nelson) he doesn't boast what Ray Conniff would call a musical voice--all he has to do is project a version of himself through his larynx. Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger may make this sound easy, but it isn't, and over the past month I have listened to records by singer-songwriters who prove it. In roughly descending order: Townes Van Zandt, Patrick Sky, Eric Andersen, Jake Holmes, David Ackles, Dino Valente. It is significant that all these guys would probably play unaccompanied acoustic guitar if they weren't scared witless by the Beatles. "Witless" is the word, although not the only one, for the minstrels and their producers seem to have very few musical ideas; either they contrive derivative, irrelevant rock arrangements or heap on the irony with fake ragtime, Sousa marches, and so forth. Their vocal limitations, I would guess, are related to what is really a disdain for music. As for their songs--well, never mind.

And then there is Randy Newman, whose debut album is one of the year's gems. Newman's songs (which have been recorded by Judy Collins, Eric Burdon, Liza Minnelli, and best by Alan Price on an obscure album called This Price Is Right) are quintessentially pop, but highly advanced pop. Two of Newman's uncles compose movie music, and we can only assume that he has long since digested all available clichés. His songs rely on no special verbal facility but on a oblique interplay of themes that are well-worn or even silly, but succinctly understood, and on his voice, which is a cross between a "grumpy mumble" (Michael Thomas's phrase) and a deliberate drawl. Imagine such a voice proposing ("I like your mother,/ I like your brother,/ I like you,/ And your like me too") and then describing the marriage on through death. Or presenting a fat boy at a circus sideshow. Or mourning a cowboy. Or just lamenting a ruined love affair. Add intermittent quasi-symphonic accompaniment (arranged by Newman, whose musical training is extensive) that neither reinforces nor works against the theme but somehow, like that voice, does both at once, or one after the other, or something.

Then give up and try to hear the record. I don't care if you've never heard of him. He's a genius, and every folkie in the world has something to learn from him.


Jefferson Airplane's fourth album, Crown of Creation, and the first physically respectable effort by Big Brother & the Holding Co., Cheap Thrills (censored title: Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills), are both available. Buy them. The Airplane record contains a revolutionary love song (written by David Crosby) called "Triad" that will test--and, I am sure, crack like a stick--the backbone of the so-called progressive rock stations. It has no beat at all, but it will never be covered by Jerry Vale. Good. As for Big Brother, this album not only gets Janis's voice down, it also does justice to her always-underrated and ever-improving musicians. Thank God for the band. If Janis had to put out like Janis for an hour a set, she would have dropped dead a year ago.


On the basis of two albums and one live performance I would call Ten Years After the most exciting group to emerge since Big Brother, and Alvin Lee the most fluent rock guitarist this side of Jerry Garcia. . . . If you dig improvised guitar, especially in soul jazz, Mel Brown's The Wizard is a recommended LP. . . . After listening more than I wanted to the third Doors LP, Waiting for the Sun, I have finally admitted to myself that despite "Hello I Love You" I don't really like them very much. Anybody out there getting the same idea? . . . The aging Rascals make flawed albums, but their singles have always enlivened the AM, and Time Peace, a compilation of hits, is highly recommended. Some corporate saint has even eliminated the coda from "It's Wonderful," so there's not a bad thing on the album.

Esquire, Nov. 1968
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


Columns: June 1968 Columns: Apr. 1969