Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Why it pays to take a chance sometimes.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
"You Ain't a Cowboy (If You Ain't Been Bucked Off)"

I try not to be a music snob, I really do. I know I've got a blind spot when it comes to country music -- the inevitable result of watching too many cornball TV shows like Hee Haw and Midwestern Hayride as a kid. But label it "Americana" or "Texas outlaw" or "alt-country" and I'll come runnin'.

So now I've got to figure how Corb Lund fits in. I recognized his name from some New West Records sampler a couple of years ago, but he's hardly a household name, at least not in the States. Far from a Nashville insider, he hails from the high plains of Canada -- his backing band is even called The Hurtin' Albertans. (Gotta love that name.)

So it was purely on a whim that I starting clicking on Corb Lund's sample tracks while nosing around Amazon a few weeks ago.  With every click, though, I became more and more intrigued. I was astonished by this album's range, from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing. It's got nimble guitar picking, it's got mournful pedal steel, it's got Dobro, it's got mouth-harp, it's got yodeling (no fiddles or banjos, though -- leave those to the indie boys). Best of all, it's got -- oh, my, has it got -- melody.

Only after I bought it, though, did I discover the depth of this record. The musicianship is crazy good, and the bracing intelligence of the songwriting knocks my socks off. Like John Hiatt or Guy Clark or Fred Eaglesmith, Corb Lund actually has something to say about life, and he says it memorably. He doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affection; he approaches it like a -- well, like a cowboy. Like a cowboy who's prone to some deep pondering while he's riding the range.

Probably the most accessible track is the wistful cowboy ballad "September," but that alone is no indication of the spunk, hustle, and mordant humor of this record. Just listen to some of these titles: "Bible on the Dash," "Pour 'Em Kinda Strong," "One Left in the Chamber," "The Gothest Girl I Can," and the delightful "Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner."

There's no single track that will give you the whole picture. So I've picked one that shows how deeply, deeply country this record is:

Yeah, of course it's a metaphor. Country music enjoys a good metaphor, the more cliched the better. That tough-it-out philosophy -- "Get back up on the horse that threw you" -- is a well-worn concept, but it suits the country mindset.
Besides, it's what you do with the cliche that matters. First of all, the tempo of this song is just right, with its lurching roll, like a bow-legged rodeo rider limping out of the corral.  That emphatic drum slap makes me picture the bronc buster slapping his dusty hat on his legs as he exits the scene of his humiliation.  There's a weary resignation to this song's syncopation that I love. And look at how he matches melodic line to the logic of each verse, starting out with an upbeat assertion, then crunching with some chromatics as he admits the complications in his story. 
"Well I was minding my business / holding the fort," he recalls, adding with a sigh, "And I still remember how you sallied forth." I love that archaic "sallied forth," perfect for a rueful touch of irony. "And my mind it was busy awarning my heart" -- but too late, bucko. "Hell, you ain't a cowboy if you ain't been bucked off." I love the shrug of resignation there -- it still hurts, but he'll find a way to move on. Because he has to.
He hits the perfect country note of self-deprecation in verse two: "Well the story's familiar, the oldest tale in the west / I fell into love and the bird left the nest." He's making no excuses for himself, even though he regrets what he sees as a moment of weakness. "Well I guess that there's reasons / we let our hard hearts turn soft" -- you wouldn't find that line in a pop song. 
The metaphor comes into full flower in the bridge, as his voice sails yearningly into a higher key: "There's all kinds of horses / Leave you grabbin' the breeze / Busted up, broken up, scars you can't see / But if you ain't been bucked off and been throwed a few times / It don't count for nothing when you make that last ride." Last ride? Could mean finding the woman he's meant to spend the rest of his life with, but there's at least a hint there of the Judgment Day. Either way, learning how to mend your own soul and carry on is essential for redemption.    
Verse three catches us up to the present: "Well the years've passed quickly / And there ain't nothing the same / Only I don't feel different and you've hardly changed." Funny how that works. You run into an old love and you think you've grown, yet the old emotions still bubble up. But you can deal with it; it's the cowboy ethos. Not some pampered whiny Nashville approach, but a real western grit-and-spine outlook. Suck it up, cowboy. Life hurts.
The pain? It's still trembling beneath the surface, in the plaintive swoops of Lund's voice, in the growl of the bassline below the acoustic strum. That's how you know it matters. That's what brings this song home.  


Betty C. said...

I am trying to pick up on blogging a little and it's very nice to see you are still at it! I think I will treat myself to some of your 2012 recommendations -- I'm so woefully ignorant of new music. Thanks!

Holly A Hughes said...

Good to hear from you! Tune in for Days Two and One -- those are albums I really think you in particular would like.

NickS said...

"So it was purely on a whim that I starting clicking on Corb Lund's sample tracks while nosing around Amazon a few weeks ago. "

Holly, I'm hurt (not really).

I've been talking up Corb Lund for years, including featuring him on the "20 most important life albums" meme which I got from you, and both the bluegrass and country mixes that I tried to get you to listen to.

I can't claim too much high ground here, since I admit I hadn't realized that he released a new album until last week. But he is, probably my favorite contemporary songwriter and somebody that (I thought) I would talk up and recommend ad nauseum.

Holly A Hughes said...

So THAT must be why his name jumped out at me so as I was scrolling around Amazon that day. I knew I'd heard more than one of his songs. Well, thanks so much for tipping me off to him. He's really amazing. I know you'll loe this album -- it's a standout. I will definitely get more of his stuff.

NickS said...

It's okay, it's easy to do (I'm embarrassed to remember the time when I apparently imagined that you had said that you had just never gotten into Squeeze).

However, if you do feel guilty I'd suggest one of the following as penance.

1) Watch the videos linked in this post at some point. I mention them here once ever six months or so because I thought of you when I was putting that together. The first performance is amazing and the last is adorable.

2)I've been inspired your posts to do a write-up of an album that I got last week. It isn't up yet, but it's something I think you'll like (and don't think you already have), I'll post a link when I complete that and give it a listen if you're so inclined.

3) Go back and listen to "Buckin' Horse Rider" again, because it's good and worth remembering.

It's off his second album (depending on you how count), and deeply soulful (in a cowboy fashion). In that case rodeo riding isn't used as a metaphor, the song is dedicated in part to his mother who was a champion barrel racer, and the various people he know who competed in the rodeo.

NickS said...

New post up, paying tribute to an album from 1971 which I happened to pick up last week.

I think something that you will like and which you most likely haven't heard before.

NickS said...

Thanks for commenting. I see I was wrong about guessing that it would be unfamiliar (I was guessing based on the fact that you described yourself as, "a confirmed Nyro-phyte.") but happy that it does match your tastes.

By the way, I listened to the included Corb Lund song last night, and I agree he is in fine form. I'd already ordered a copy, but now I will be waiting impatiently for it.