Thursday, April 16, 2020

Now that Ken Burns doco has proven that quality country music is actually awesome, here is my country music playlist

"Country music doesn’t deserve its right-wing reputation — its roots lie with the hopes and travails of working people." So wrote left-wing music critic Alexander Billet in Jacobin Magazine in a piece Jacobin published that is almost enough to wipe away Jacobin's horrific, unspeakable Merle Haggard obit (but still not enough... that was shocking).

Still, if there is one thing too-cool-for-school kids of all ages love, it is making jokes about how uncool "country and western" is. Stupid hats and suits and rednecks singing corny cliches in an irritating whine interupting only by yodelling and a whole gamut of ultra-conservative views. You know, just like the country music that Johnny Cash is so infamous for.

So when Trump was first elected 3000 years ago (or "in 2016" if believe in conventional measurements of time, which I no longer do), a friend posted on facebook that the "worst thing" would be "all the country and western music". 

Get it? Ignorant rednecks voted for Trump and they listen to country and western! HAHAHAHA if we get nothing out this nightmare we at least get hilarious jokes like that!

As no one has actually seriously used the phrase "country and western" to describe country music anytime in the past 70 years, use of the phrase "country and western" is a dead give away that someone just repeating mindless prejudices against one of genres of popular music that has proven, over decades, in multiples waves, to be a wonderfully literate, profound, poetic and grounded form of popular music, rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people. 

I mean for god's sake, look at country music legend John Prine who sadly just died from the virus and he was all that to every inch. 

Of course, there is plenty labelled country music that is shit, cliched and absurd. This stuff is generated and sold by corporate record companies and played on corporate radio stations and it is manufactored and pointless and sometimes gets truly, insanely, mindnumbingly lame (search "bro country" on youtube... I dare you).

But imagining that kind of stuff is the essence of country music is like imagining Vanilla Ice is the essence of hip hop. 

The whole use of genres is pretty articifial to begin with. Most musicians cross over to some extent and all the genres to emerge in the 20th centruy of North America have common roots in the melting pots of cultures from Africa and the Europe, brewed in poverty and exploited by those with money to sell records. 

"Country" (or hillbilly music as it was first known) was sold to white audiences, "blues" was sold to Black audiences, but both emerged as fluid mix of the musical and story-telling traditions from Africa and European nations like Scotland and Ireland. The influence of Black musicians on country and non-white country musicians gets written out of its official history, but the genre still remains very popular to play and listen to among Native Americans and Aboriginal communities in Australia to this day.

Does it really matter if people reject "country music" on a false basis? Probably not, except you see people that you know, based on their other musical preferrences, would actually really like a lot of country music if they just let themselves. They are missing out. 

A great antidote to stupid cultural prejudices is the Country Music documentary series by acclaimed US film-maker Ken Burns, which is screening on SBS. It has been justly hailed as a brilliant social history of not just the genre of country music but US society and popular culture in the 20th century.

Those who already loved country music love the series, those who thought they hated it love the series. 

It;s good, but as good as it is, it doesn't answer the question everyone wants to know: "If Carlo Sands was going to put together a playlist giving an overview of country music he likes, what 35 songs would he choose?"

And I am delighted to be able to answer... THESE 35 SONGS!!! ON MY COUNTRY MUSIC PLAYLIST!!!

I've had a variation on this list for like the past half dozen years or so, but keep changing it. It is very sort of an introduction to country music but is examples of the stuff within the broad church I like, which leans heavily to the "poetic singer/songwriter" wing that often gets called "" or "Americana" but is far truer to country music's origins than anything ever released by Garth Brooks. It starts with some classics, missing many, then on to those from a bumbper crop of high quality songs from 21st century artists

Anyway, I've got two versions, the longer version that is 35 songs long and then the shorter and sharper one I've somehow cut down to 25 songs. All sorts of worthy artistis are not on it. This is not "the best of country music" just a sample of the shit I like. Both lists are 50/50 male and female singers, whicb no doubt underplays the role of female singers in the genre. Comment with what is missing in the comment section if you must.


  1. Really enjoying this playlist. And I have never been a country music fan.

    1. You hust haven't been listening to the right stuff. It is a very good genre for story telling and simple but often very literate and high quality lyricism. Have you been watching Burns' doco?

    2. but very glad you are listening to it at all... and enjoying it!