Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Hot Burrito #1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)

I think I’m starting to understand country music. The ‘keening’ vocals are not meant to be conventionally attractive, so all those years I spent wondering what was attractive about the forlorn dog-whine, I was missing the point. In fact, the vocals on the best of country songs sound that way because it’s a more direct combination of form and content. The successful country singer’s voice breaks as his heart breaks, and somewhere in the process, we the audience are drawn into the drama. And, potentially, hooked.

If there’s any truth to this theory, it seems ideally best presented in the context of weepy country songs. Hoedown stuff, the ‘western’ half I suppose, I still can’t explain. Garth Brooks I can’t explain either.

And, as a further caveat, if there’s any truth to this theory, then I reckon the vocal melody is essential. A weepy country song without much of a melody behind it is just, well, annoying. The kind of thing that people who detest country imagine when discussing how much they detest country.

Which explains the miracle of this poorly-titled song performed by a poorly-titled band who were hailed as ‘country rock’ at the time for reasons I can’t fathom (this is all country, no rock, though granted its fraternal twin “…#2” does have a fuzz guitar on it): the melody. Gram Parsons sounds as if he’s at risk of crumbling to little bits like a dried clay sculpture at any minute, particularly when his melody tests his thin vocal talents. And yet it is precisely the marriage of his vocal performance to his vocal melody that gives you the feeling that you’ve entered this poor man’s head. Suddenly ‘weepy and self-obsessed’ becomes ‘profoundly universal’, and the words appear to be conveying a meaning much deeper than they truly are. (And why isn’t this song called “I’m Your Toy”?)

Some day they’ll make the movies they’ve been making about Ian Curtis now about Gram Parsons. And presumably they’ll be just as interesting. Just like 2Pac (there’s a comparison you don’t meet every day), Gram Parsons is perhaps accorded too much glory merely for dying young, but this particular rich kid did float ethereally through the music industry for a few years, inventing Emmylou Harris and giving the Rolling Stones the keys to the magical Credible Country Vault. Along the way, he wrote a handful of beautiful songs with indelible melodies, and sang them all with that voice that could be a torture instrument, but somehow manages to convince you that everything will be all right precisely because it so self-evidently won’t.
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