In late 1995 Tim Warren compiled an LP of 50s and 60s country songs entitled ‘God Less America’ that he released on his Crypt record label. Nigh-on 20 years later in 2014 Todd Starnes had a hateful book entitled ‘God Less America’ published. Tim Warren was, and remains, a one man crusade to keep alive the splendour of sweaty, hormone fuelled garage punk on vinyl. Todd Starnes is still an odious Fox TV anchor man, news presenter and peddler of hate filled declamations in support of the vile putrescence that is the Neo-con Christian right. I’m not sure about Warren’s politics, or even if he has any, but I’m certain they are not cut from the same cloth as Starnes. Similarly I am sure that Starnes has never listened, with immature glee, to Myron Lee & The Caddies’ ‘Homicide‘, The Retreds’ ‘Black Mona Lisa‘ or Royal Flairs ‘Suicide’.
At first glance then there is little in common, beyond a title, between these two relatively minor publishing excursions. Take a closer look though and the parallels start to emerge. The subtitle for Starnes drivel is ‘Real stories from the frontlines of the attack on traditional values’. This is a picture perfect encapsulation of what is offered across the 19 songs presented on Warren’s compilation and he really did miss a trick in not using it as the bi-line for his weird and wonderful record. Instead he went with ‘Country & Western for all ye sinners’n’ sufferers’ 1955-1966’ (typo the label’s own!). Warren made his name curating the ‘Back From the Grave’ series of 60s garage compilations and single-handedly sustaining the careers of such revivalists as DMZs, Raunch Hands, Oblivians and the almost famous Murder City Devils. ‘God Less America’ is his one and only delve into the Country & Western music arena and it remains unclear to me whether we should feel short-changed or grateful for such a limited excursion.
It seems that the compilation of this record was pretty much a bi-product of his crate digging for teen garage punk obscurities in the 80s. Scouring the racks of mid-western record stores he couldn’t fail to be distracted (attracted?) by 7” singles with titles such as ‘Too Many Pills’, ‘Please Don’t Go Topless Mother’, ‘8 Weeks In A Barroom’, ‘The Devil, My Conscience And I’ and my personal favourite ‘Rock & Roll Killed My Mother’. Let’s be honest, who in their right minds could have ignored such records or, given the existing label infrastructure, failed to create a lasting document of their existence for posterity. Lasting barely 40 minutes across 17 mercifully short tracks the artists represented here (Arkey Blue and the Blue Cowboys, Horace Heller, Lum Hatcher or Country Johnny Mathis anyone?) counsel us about the dangers of drugs, drink, drunk driving, pornography, drugs, crime (murder in particular), infidelity and… did I mention drugs? Although, singing about “too many girls, too many parties and too many pills” sounds like an invitation not a warning to these ears.
In finest compilation style we get a melange of styles and sub-genres veering, like Grandpa Joe’s ‘Drunken Driver’, through vaguely psychedelic Bakersfield-esque twang, out and out fiddling Texas honky tonk, spoken word lounge country-jazz and the lowest-fi version of brill building roots pop imaginable. None of it offers anything musically unique or exciting and some of it is barely competent if we’re being honest. And then we get the words, which is probably why we are here… the lyrics are in turn childishly naive, gloopily sentimental resoundingly preachy or just plain incomprehensible. Nothing here is genuinely emotional, poetic or insightful in any way and we are not provoked or challenged by them. Neither are we moved, other than to laughter or eyebrow raising distaste perhaps at a body count rising well over a dozen, with wives, children, strangers, love rivals, friends, public servants and protagonists all biting the dust at one point or another.
None of this is to suggest that you should dismiss these songs or this record as a whole, far from it in fact. Individually and collectively they are by turns fascinating, hilarious, implausible, mesmerising and, most importantly, always colossally entertaining. What makes it so is that, in their original form, none of them were anything other than deadly serious. Discogs and All Music may use the word novelty in describing ‘God Less America’ but I think this is wrong. The original artists involved in producing these songs may have realised the oddness at their heart, their outlier status but none of them were approaching this world from the knowing perspective of say Weird Al Jancovich or even Ween’s ‘12 Golden Country Greats’. It is too easy to hear these songs as pastiche, when for the most part they were anything but, they were deadly serious in both message and performance.
Whilst it is undeniable that ‘God Less America’ was (and still is) seen as a kitsch artefact, that is not the way these tracks were written, recorded and released in their original form. These songs were fashioned to offer country music as the wholesome antidote to the nefarious ‘anti-social’ goings on they depicted. They were evidently sincere and heartfelt, if sometimes poorly conceived and executed, attempts to engage with the country music audience. They were however also recognised as being outside the mainstream country music cannon, occupying a kind of outlier position that brought into relief the overly serious, even self-regarding sincerity and sentimentality of much of country music at the time.
So we have two ‘God Less America’s. Each compiled from somewhat distasteful and exploitative stories that were fabricated to represent a set of values most of us have no time for. Fortunately at least one of these is available on 12 inch black vinyl – the only format this LP’s outsider status warrants, even though it was has eventually been released on CD. Add to that the virtually information free yet still perfect sleeve that must have taken all of 25 minutes to design and get print ready and we have an artefact that, 28 years after its release., still fascinates and entertains in equal measure.
The vinyl record was released with both blue and yellow labels. A copy with a yellow label will cost you £20 – £25, a blue label goes for £30-£40. However the record is very rare in the UK and you may well have to shop in the USA to obtain a copy, in which case you would also have to pay hefty postal charges. There were also a small number of white label promos, which have never even been listed on Discogs, let alone sold, so if one did come up then your guess is as good as mine. The CD version is also quite scarce, so expect to pay £10 – £15 to secure a copy.
*Fun cover image fact: the sign for the Lariat Motel, Fallon Nevada, which is the cover image, is now owned by the Churchill Arts Council and is posted as a kind of public art installation on the outskirts of town. The actual motel is long gone.