My brother was laid off last week, for the second time in a year. That’s the kind of thing that brings the state of the global economy really close to home, even though he’s been fortunate enough to find something else to move on to.
One of the great things about country music has always been that it’s rooted in real life. You can pretty much find a song for every occasion somewhere in the genre, even if in recent years mainstream releases have largely focused on the feel-good at the expense of deeper material. I had been wondering when the first songs about the current situation were going to emerge, and whether radio would be prepared to adapt.
John Rich’s new single, ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’, seems to be being received well on radio. I’m not much of a fan of the self-regarding, self-aggrandizing John Rich, but I am impressed with this song, which really captures what I think many people feel. My problem with the single is, unfortunately, Rich’s vocal performance, which to my ears signally lacks the anger of the lyric. It ends up feeling unconvincing. I rather wish he had passed it to someone else to sing, rather than using it to springboard his solo career.
So I was looking around my record collection for older songs where the song and performance combine better on the same theme. It is arguably the case that period provided the crucible which produced country music as a distinct genre – after the first flowering of recordings of hillbilly, blues, gospel and folk music in the 1920s. Songs from that period and subsequent periods still strike a chord today.
After thinking about this for a while, I’ve come up with the following short list of less familiar songs on the subject. I’ve tried to avoid picking the obvious songs, with a couple of exceptions, and also songs about longterm rural poverty, which although an important part of country music’s heritage, weren’t quite what I was looking for this time.
The most recent song on my list is ‘Cash’, written by Jon Randall and Jessi Alexander, and recorded by the actor John Corbett on his surprisingly listenable vanity project (Good To G0) a couple of years ago. This song is a rather cool song about a guy who loses his job and takes comfort in his record collection.
Ten years ago, in 1999, Stacy Dean Campbell, who had failed to make a chart impact as a mainstream act on Columbia earlier that decade, released an album entitled Ashes Of Old Love on Warner Brothers. This had more of a singer-songwriter feel, andwas even less successful commercially than his previous releases. One of the overlooked songs on the record was ‘Train Not Running’, co-written by Campbell with Chris Knight, who also recorded his own version on his The Jealous Kind album a few years later.
Ironically, the same album contains a cover of another song on my list, Jamie O’Hara’s ‘Bidding America Goodbye’, a sad tale of a farm lost for want of a bank loan. There are several versions of this song, but my favorite is probably the one I heard first – by Tanya Tucker from her 1991 album What Do I Do With Me.
Skip Ewing is better known as a songwriter than a singer these days, but in 1993 his album Homegrown Love included an excellent song written by Mickey Cates, ‘A Man Who Wants To Work’, a first-person narrative about a blue-collar worker unable to find a job. This is possibly my favourite of Skip’s albums, but it was one of his least successful commercially, so this track really is a hidden gem.
From the 1980s, there’s ‘Busted’, John Conlee’s version of the Harlan Howard song also well known for the earlier recording by Ray Charles. This one takes a semi-humorous approach, but it’s very much black comedy with a real sense of the underlying desperation. It was originally written in the 60s, and should be the most familiar song on my list.
For a retrospective look at the Great Depression, I’ve picked Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Here Comes That Rainbow Again’, which finds an unexpected sweetness in human nature in a story inspired by an incident in the classic novel, The Grapes Of Wrath.
The Depression is referred to in what was then a modern context in Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘Desperation Road’, released on his 1989 album, Land Of Enchantment. This tells of a meeting with a homeless and hopeless family living on the road, ‘a silent reminder that the grapes of wrath still make bitter wine’. This one is ripe for a revival, and would make a timely cover for someone.
What distinguishes my picks from John Rich’s single is basically that I believe them. They convince the listener that the situation is real, and that it matters. ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’ is clearly intended to do the same, but the vocal doesnt have the inherent conviction the song needs. It all feels rather like a missed opportunity.
Do you have any recommendations for songs to fit the current mood?