Time for another in our series looking at the routes our writers have taken into Americana and just what it is that makes it our favourite genre. This week we are warmed by Clint West’s pathological dislike of country music and how the poacher turned a gamekeeper.
Me and country music didn’t really get off to the best of starts. My mum’s liking for Jim Reeves, Charlie Pride and Slim Whitman still haunts me today. Instead I fell for the punk revolution and The Clash remain the single most influential band in forging my future musical and political preferences. As a young man I shared a flat with a guy that I used to mercilessly tease as a hippie because he listened to the likes of Neil Young, Richard Thompson and Michael Chapman, all artists that I would in time come to love, whilst I was searching for a new post-punk direction.
My first re-assessment of my pathological dislike of country music came courtesy of The Clash and their support act – The Joe Ely Band. Whilst this hitherto unknown Texan was getting absolute pelters from some of punk’s more closed minds (presumably the same people who now in their fifties/sixties are still turning out to see the UK Subs and Angelic Upstarts), I was quietly thinking to myself that I rather liked this chap with his matching jet black hair and shirt with bootlace tie and cowboy boots.
After that things moved on rapidly. I quickly discovered the wonderful and pioneering Rank & File with the Kinman Brothers and Alejandro Escovedo. My path was set and took in Jason and The Scorchers, The Beat Farmers and The Blasters.
The emergence of the Paisley Underground in the 1980s, championed on radio by Andy Kershaw was another key cornerstone in developing my tastes. Green on Red, The Long Ryders, The Dream Syndicate and Giant Sand all became firm favourites. It was around this time that I also started to look backwards and to realise that my old hippie flatmate might have been on to something as I uncovered the delights of CSNY, The Grateful Dead and The Byrds amongst many, many others.
At the same time the ‘New Country’ movement alerted me to the likes of Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Nanci Griffith. Although I don’t keep count, its probably safe to say that I have seen Steve Earle more times than any other artist and he remains one of the few artists that I will go out and buy a new release from without even hearing it.
As time moved on my tastes became ever more eclectic taking in soul, blues, reggae and folk but it was always what we now term Americana that I kept returning to. Although I was already aware of some of the artists, the Uncut ‘Songs of the New West’ CD given away with the September 1998 issue, kick-started the alt-country movement. So excited was I, that with a couple of friends, I started to promote alt-country bands at venues across Manchester. The performers that we met, loved the music so much, were so aware of their cultural heritage and with only two exceptions, were incredibly nice people. Probably the nicest of them all was the great Chip Taylor.
Throughout my musical journey, going right back to The Clash, the songs have always been at the heart of what I have loved. Americana has produced some of the very best songwriters around: John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark being foremost amongst them. I am happy to place them on an equal footing with Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen and two of my particular favourites, Warren Zevon and Randy Newman.
I’ve already shared that my journey hasn’t always been a straight line, so I’m not sure where certain things fit into the jigsaw. I can’t remember when I first heard Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard or George Jones. Johnny Cash, even in my pre-country days, was always a bit of a guilty secret. I can’t remember when I was able to come out about my love for country music, but being able to cite the man in black, certainly made it easier.
There are so many more I really should have mentioned in this reflection: Wilco, The Jayhawks, Gillian Welch, Iris DeMent, I really could go and on and on. However, I will finish with a very recent clip. Music should never be just about nostalgia. I know so many people still listening to the music that they grew up with and who have taken nothing on board since. They are missing out on so much. Earlier this year I saw The Nude Party play in Manchester. They were all comfortably young enough to be my offspring and they were absolutely fabulous. As the late John Peel once pointed out, you can draw a parallel between his (and my) great twin passions of music and football. In football what happened in past seasons is great to look back on and to celebrate, but it’s what is happening now that really stirs the passion and emotions. The same is true of music.