The chicken wire and broken bottles in Blues Brothers. The rise and fall of Lurleen Lumpkin. That’s the sum total of country music a suburban Essex upbringing afforded me. Later, Lambchop and Silver Jews attached alt sensibilities (whatever that actually means) to all the pedal steels and trucker caps, and suddenly it made a lot more sense. Then, of course, came Nashville. When London In Stereo isn’t working hard at being London In Stereo, we’re watching Nashville.
Still, though, I need some help in understanding the basics, so who better to ask than the Legends Of Country’s Jof Owen? As a life-long country fan he’s made a truly heart-warming album, Talk About Country, that exports the Nashville sound but roots the lyrics very much into a low-key Britishness that’s wonderfully recognisable and entirely relatable. Do I understand bags of crisps in Whistable pubs and listening to Amelia Fletcher records? Yes, yes I do.
But how did Legends Of Country get to that place? Ahead of their headline show at The Barfly on Thursday 12th November, Jof treats us to a fantastically in-depth introduction into his five key country moments. Read this, and be more country – though, sadly, ‘Bagged Me A Homer’ doesn’t make the list.
The Rockingbirds – Drifting
I remember seeing The Rockingbirds on a Sunday night in a little pub in the village I grew up in at some point in the nineties. I was about fifteen and I was drinking Pernod and black because I’d found out it was the alcoholic drink that tasted most like sweets. I don’t know if alt-country was even called alt-country back then, but I didn’t know what it was if it was. I just thought it was straight up country music played by men with British accents. I’d loved country ever since I was a kid and I’d grown up listening to George Hamilton IV and Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, but this was the first time I remember seeing a cool British band playing it. Drifting sounds like it could have been a Ricky Skaggs song. I saw Alan Tyler playing this song at Maverick Festival this year and it was the highlight of my whole weekend.
Jonathan Richman – Since She Started To Ride
Jonathan Goes Country is my favourite Jonathan Richman album. One of the great inspirations behind forming Legends Of Country was this record. Not because it’s one of the greatest country records of all time, although it is, but just because it showed me that with enough love for and understanding of country music he could make a great country album that was totally unique and authentic to himself and the way he sees the world and writes about things. It wasn’t as if I was entirely new to country music anyway. In The Boy Least Likely To, we’d been putting our own twist on country from the beginning, but mixing it with indiepop or disco or whatever. I guess with Legends Of Country I was just throwing myself into it completely, musically and lyrically. I was interested in making a record for people who had grown up listening to and loving country music but didn’t particularly like either the bleak introspective Americana that seemed to be everywhere or overproduced mainstream country music. We started talking about “country music for people who don’t really like country music”, but we didn’t mean it as literally as that. We just meant it was country music for people who thought there was nothing left in country music for them. We wanted people to have fun at our shows at the same time as having lyrics about things that had become more important to me as I’d got older. I’d hardly listened to anything but country music for the last six years, so I really just wanted to make a record that I wanted to listen to.
Brad Paisley – Me Neither
I love words more than anything. I can still love a crap sounding song if I like the words, but I can’t listen to a song that sounds amazing if the words are crap. And it’s all about the words in country music. I know the production on some of the country songs I listen to is terrible, but I let it go because the song itself is so beautiful. I know not everyone can do that and I totally understand people not wanting to listen to contemporary country music because it sounds a bit dodgy, but it’s a shame because they’re missing out on all these incredible songs. This one from nearly twenty years ago is Brad Paisley at his funniest, self-deprecating best as he second guesses a girl’s reactions to his romantic advances and then backtracks when she reacts differently.
Pistol Annies – Lemon Drop
Luckily this song by Miranda Lambert’s hellcat throwback trio, Pistol Annies sounds amazing and the lyrics are amazing too – “I got thrift store curtains in the windows of my home. I’m payin’ for a house that the landlord owns. Bought a TV on a credit card and it’ll take me ten years to pay if off”. You don’t get that from Years And Years! Angaleena Presley wrote it, and I’m having to use it as a one-song-fits-all choice for all the incredible country songs being written and sung by women in country music right now – for Brandy Clark and Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood and Ashley Monroe and so many other women. Their songs make more sense to me than anything being put out by men right now and I think it’s a really exciting time for country music because of them. A lot of the male country artists seem to have got stuck in their own stereotypes. Not us though. Obviously.
Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
Friends In Low Places is the greatest country song ever written and I’ll argue until the early hours of the morning with anyone who thinks otherwise. Often just myself. It’s got it all – social class, ex-lovers, heartbreak, alcohol and cowboy boots. I smile every time he sings the line about seeing “the fear in his eyes” as he takes a glass of champagne. The story behind the writing and recording of the song is country folklore. Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee wrote it on napkins at a party in Nashville, and they only asked Garth Brooks to sing a demo version of it so they could try to get it placed, after they met him working as a shoe salesman in Nashville. By the time he actually came to record the demo, Brooks had been signed to Capitol, but it was too late to be included on his eponymous debut album. It didn’t end up appearing until a year or so later on his follow up, No Fences. At any time on any day along the Broadway in Nashville there’ll almost certainly be someone in a bar somewhere singing Friends In Low Places, and there’ll be no more perfect place to hear it being sung. It only reached number 36 on the UK singles charts. I give up.