Last year, a writer on Salon posted an article called “14 Amazing Country Songs For People Who Hate Country.” I read it, of course, although I was pretty certain I wouldn’t agree with it. And I didn’t. The problem was that the author hadn’t stopped to ask why people might “hate country.” He simply went in and posted links to fourteen songs he liked, and since he and I apparently have very different tastes, they weren’t songs I was crazy about even when they featured artists like Emmylou Harris who are some of my favorites.
A lot of people may hate “country” music because they think it’s twangy and old-fashioned. These are people who have apparently never listened to the product coming out of Nashville these days, which in many ways is indistinguishable from any other pop music. I may not be a fan of George Jones, but you’d never mistake the guy for somebody recording in LA. I can’t say the same for Taylor Swift. I’d say the list of fourteen songs on Salon might really appeal to people who feel dislike country music for this reason.
But what about people who hate country for that very reason—that Nashville music sounds like everybody else’s music these days? For them, that list won’t do much. For these people I have an alternative suggestion—Americana music (T. Bone Burnett calls it “American Traditional,” but I think that’s confusing—which “tradition” are we talking about?). Many Americana artists, like Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, have spent some time in Nashville. Some, like Emmylou, still live there. But their music sounds nothing like the music coming out of mainstream Nashville these days. It’s rougher, more raw, and less predictable.
So here are 14 Americana songs for people who don’t like Country Music. Maybe you’ll like them. Maybe you won’t. But you’ll never mention them in the same breath with Taylor Swift.
1. “Gallo Del Cielo,” Joe Ely. Joe is my number one evidence for the inadequacy of the “Country” label, although he usually ends up in the Country Music section of music stores. This is his most popular song—not rock, not what you think of as country, and it’s about cock fighting. Enjoy.
2. “Melinda,” James McMurtry. James is the number two evidence for the inadequacy of calling an artist “Country”. He’s from Texas, and he can do a credible Townes Van Zandt cover, but he’s an original. This is a lovely ballad from his St. Mary In the Woods album.
3. “City of Immigrants,” Steve Earle. Choosing a single Steve Earle song is practically impossible, but this is one he wrote after moving to New York from Nashville.
4. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Rosanne Cash. Oh my, how to choose only one Rosanne Cash song? This is from her latest album, The River and the Thread, which ranks up there as one of my all time favorites. Keep in mind—Rosanne Cash was a bestselling Nashville artist in the eighties and left to make the kind of music she wanted. Bless her.
5. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Buddy Miller. If you want some old time torch and twang, Buddy Miller’s your guy. He’s also a first-rate Nashville session man and songwriter. The real deal, in other words.
6. “Heroin Addict Sister,” Elizabeth Cook. I have no idea if this song is biographical or not, but it breaks my heart every time I hear it. Cook’s a Florida country singer with her own Sirius show.
7. “Cornbread,” Band of Heathens. My, my yes. You’ll need a fan for this one.
8. “Shelter From the Storm,” Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. My all-time favorite version of this Dylan song from Crowell, a modern outlaw.
9. “Pancho and Lefty,” Emmylou Harris. Speaking of my all-time favorite versions—no one does this Townes Van Zandt song better than Emmylou.
10. “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” Carolina Chocolate Drops. A old-time song done old-timey style by a wonderful trio.
11. “Look Like a Bird,” Amanda Shires. New music that sounds like old music, sort of. A modern Appalachian melody.
12. “Coming Home,” Robert Earl Keen. “The Road Goes On Forever” is his most famous song, but I like his quieter love songs like this one.
13. “Dublin Blues,” Guy Clark. One of the Grand Old Men of Texas music with a beautiful song (and Emmylou on backup).
14. “Never Chase a Man,” Esme Patterson. Sort of a ringer since Patterson isn’t exactly an Americana singer. This song is an answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”