Want to learn more about country music? Want to hear some great country music? Here are some places to start.
Annie & Mac
Looking for professional polish? Don’t look here. But if you’re looking for old-time country, sung with warmth and an obvious commitment to the music, check them out. There are some great samples on YouTube, too–I love their “As Long as I Live,” even if they wrongly credit Roy Acuff as the songwriter. (He bought it from Jim Anglin.)
The master of the guit-steel is revered as a guitar god, but if he never picked another note he’d still be a national treasure as one of our great singer/songwriters.
Citizens Band Radio
Citizens Band Radio is the best country band in the greater New York area. Their best song is the classic “Waiting on a Train,” familiar to Tennessee Walt fans, but they have a string of great originals, plus an occasional cover, and put on an excellent show.
If Amber Digby had been born fifty years earlier, she’d have been one of the greatest starts of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her voice is in the Patsy Cline/Loretta Lynn class, and if the country scene has moved on from her style of music in the past half-century, that’s its loss.
The author of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Any More” is a country original, and easily the funniest songwriter in country history. His shows are as much standup comedy as country music, and they score big on both fronts.
Jackson calls herself the “Queen of Rock,” but she started as a country singer and her show still contains a lot of country. She’s a little old lady now, but she still kicks it onstage. Her cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” is a must-hear.
One of my five leading candidates for the greatest living songwriter over 50, Kristofferson is still a sensational performer. A New York show he did a few years back remains the best country show I’ve ever seen.
A strong candidate for the greatest living country star, Lynn recently marked her 50th year in the business and is still actively touring.
Another of my five leading candidates for the greatest living songwriter over 50, Nelson delivers a live show with an energy and commitment that would shame most performers half his age. Eschewing opening acts, between-song patter or breaks for the lead singer/guitarist, his shows have a Springsteenian dynamism. He’s written an astonishing number of great songs, and does an amazing number of them in every show.
The best living songwriter under 50 has veered into pop in recent years, which is a shame. But young people are changeable, and her fans can hope that, like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, she’ll come back to country in time.
Four Nashville Institutions:
If you’re going to Nashville—and, if you’re spending time on this site, you should go to Nashville—there’s plenty for country fans to see and do. These four are the essentials.
The Grand Ole Opry
The importance of the Grand Ole Opry to the history of country music can’t be overstated. Equally important, they put on a terrific show, with a mix of young talent and storied veterans every time the curtain goes up. The last time we were there, we saw then-93-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens in what turned out to be one of his last performances. Can’t get there? Go to www.wsmonline.com and listen to the show live.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop
Founded by the Texas Troubadour himself in 1947, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has its flagship store on Broadway in Nashville, plus satellites in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and in Fort Worth, Texas. Its Texas Troubadour Theater, in Music Valley, hosts the famed Midnite Jamboree on Saturday nights after the Opry. The Record Shop’s place in country history rests primarily on its having the world’s best country-music online/mail-order business, which provided a huge chunk of my country collection.
The Midnite Jamboree
The Midnite Jamboree, which is broadcast live or recorded live at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop’s Texas Troubadour Theater in Music Valley and airs on WSM after the Opry on Saturday nights, is a terrific show and has been for more than 70 years now (you can see Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) singing on the Jamboree, with E.T. as himself, in the classic 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter). The Jamboree is an up-close-and-personal chance to see Opry stars and up-and-comers alike let their hair down after hours, and to meet them after the show. I never miss it when I’m in Nashville. (Lately the show has launched a membership drive to cover its steadily increasing expenses, spearheaded by Glenn Douglas Tubb, nephew of E.T. I’ve sent in my $75 membership, and would encourage others to do likewise. Tell ’em Tennessee Walt sent you.) Can’t get there? Go to www.wsmonline.com and listen to the show live.
The Ryman Auditorium
The former longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry is nicknamed “the Mother Church of Country Music,” and it’s a must-see, even though the Opry left in the 1970s and nowadays returns only occasionally in the winter. By all means take the backstage tour, which is fascinating, but what you really want to do is see a show there. It’s a great venue, and performers tend to be at their best when they’re there.
Three Great Museums:
The Country Music Hall of Fame
I’ve been to a lot of museums dedicated to American music, and the Country Hall of Fame tops them all for class, scope and user-friendliness. Located just off Broadway in downtown Nashville, it does right by everybody from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift.
The Johnny Cash Museum
Initially I thought this was some sort of cheap tourist trap cashing in on the success of Walk the Line (2005). Not so—it’s a remarkably comprehensive look at the Man in Black’s career, based on the collection of an aficionado who knew Cash personally for many years. Well worth a visit—I’ve been there twice, and would happily go back again.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum
This fascinating museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution located in Bristol, Va.—less than a block from Bristol, Tenn.—honors the “Big Bang of Country Music,” which took place in Bristol in 1927. Understandably, it’s particularly strong on Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were both “discovered” during one memorable week in Bristol, but it’s full of fascinating information and exhibits on country’s earliest days.
And one more that’s probably great:
I haven’t yet made it to the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va., but I hear that it’s a wonderful place to visit—especially on Saturday nights, when there’s live country music. Maybe you’ll run into us there!
There are many labels specializing in country, far too many to list here. However, these two are exceptionally significant for devotees of classic country.
If there’s such a thing as too much country, Bear Family is the place to look for it. Its massive compilations of the complete recordings (including alternate takes, unreleased songs and more) of such country legends as Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells and Johnny Cash are characterized by obsessive attention to detail and lavish presentation of said details. Country is only a part of what this German company does—blues and especially early rock also figure prominently in its catalog—but it’s a huge part. What Bear Family does, nobody does better.
I’m not personally a huge devotee of western swing, which seems to me far more swing than country, but in more than a quarter-century Heart of Texas has amassed an impressive slate of artists working in the category, including old-timers such as Ferlin Husky and Hank Thompson and younger artists such as Darrell McCall and the great Amber Digby.