Music geek’s encycplopedia: the best of country
by Josh Friedberg
Country music has a bad rap. Today, radio confections have more pop polish than twang, creating a skewed image of the genre. But, of course, bubblegum country describes only one part of the music’s history.
Since the first country recordings in the 1920s, the music has told enough tragic and triumphant stories to merit listening to many of its talents.
For this Music Geek’s Encyclopedia, the focus is on two of the most acclaimed singers country music has seen—one who wrote a staggering output of classic songs in his last six years and the other an icon who also died young and stood out as a singer on some of country’s most gorgeous productions.
During the 1940s and the advent of honky-tonk music, with its steel guitars and strong backbeats, a singer-songwriter known for his aching voice and terse lyrics recorded some of country’s most-beloved material.
Although the song title “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” overstates his talent, Hank Williams Sr. nonetheless wrote some of country music’s greatest and best-known compositions. The titles sound familiar: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Hey, Good Lookin,’” “Lost Highway” and others have been canonized as among America’s greatest musical contributions of the last century.
Still, for many contemporary fans, Williams’ work remains unexplored. That’s where “40 Greatest Hits” comes in. Currently out of print but available in used copies, this two-CD set is considered the best available introduction to Williams’ music. I agree, because it includes lesser-known tracks like “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave).”
In addition, compared to long box sets, the collection is succinct enough not to tire listeners with Williams’ repetitious chord changes and instrumentation. But whatever small grievances one has, no one denies that this is real country, free of artifice or unnecessary polish. Williams’ songs on “40 Greatest Hits” deserve space in almost any collection of American music.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, producer Owen Bradley helped pioneer “The Nashville Sound,” a pop-friendly version of country music using string arrangements and backup singers.
Three years after her 1957 hit “Walkin’ After Midnight,” singer Patsy Cline was looking for further success. In the following two and a half years, extensively highlighted on the two-disc album “Gold” (previously released as “The Ultimate Collection”), she blossomed into a diva, often called the greatest woman in country music’s history.
“Crazy,” “I Fall To Pieces,” “She’s Got You” and “Sweet Dreams” are the best-known tracks, but most of “Gold” is worth hearing, including the sensual “He Called Me Baby” and the joyous “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.”
With Bradley’s production, Cline is arguably the most accessible icon of classic country music to younger and younger generations of fans.
Causes Josh Friedberg Supports
The Trevor Project, PFLAG, ColorOfChange.org