Country Music Month: American storytelling

Country music is a storytelling music. At times that telling of stories goes along with glitz and flash and high powered special effects and stage shows. At other times, the story is the focus. As it is Country Music Month in the United States, here is a look at three recordings very different though they are from one another, where stories of American life take center stage.

Connie Smith knows a bit about the high profile side of the country music business: she had a long string of hit albums in the 1960s and 1970s, creating a presence thatbrought admiration from musicians in rock, pop, country, and other genres. These artists are drawn to Smith’s thoughtful song selection, distinctive phrasing, and most of all the heart and hearfelt joy in her voice. Following her heart into gospel music and time spent raising her five children took Smith not exactly out of the spotlight, but to the side of it for some years. That’s given her time to develop her writing, and her voice still holds that hook of down home country back roads, and her song selection and writing are still as on point as ever. All these things are found in Smith’s album Long Line of Heartaches. It’s her first album in fifteen years, but it seems as though she just stepped of the stage a moment ago, so fresh sounding is her voice and material. The album, which was recorded at historic Studio B in Nashville, includes five cuts Smith wrote with her husband, fellow country star Marty Stuart, including the title track,. Another standout is written by another country star, That Makes Two of Us, from Patty Loveless. My Part of Forever and Blue Heartaches are two more especially worth the listening. It’s classic country done by a woman who is a master of that heartfelt sound.

You may know the music of Michael Martin Murphey: he’s the voice and the writer behind Wildfire. Two Step ‘Round the Christmas Tree, and Carolina in the Pines, to name just three of his pieces which have caught the imagination of listeners across genre and generation. In recent years, Murphey has begun combining his deep love and knowledge of the music and stories of the American West with his equally deep affection for bluegrass. Tall Grass & Cool Water is the latest result of what is turning out to be an intirguing fusion of ideas. The stories of Texas and places farther west fit in well with the fiddle, guitar, and banjo rhythms of bluegrass. Murphey’s way of bringing the two together gives each genre a fresh sound. On Tall Grass Cool Water there is a trilogy of songs concerning the members of the James Gang, outlaws of the west. There’s Texas Cowboy, a poem from the 1880s which true life Texas cowboy Murphey set to music, and the familiar western song Cool Water. The Railroad Corral is a song Murphey wrote about adventures on the trail that led up to getting cattle to the railroad trailhead, a journey every cowboy had to make, and that each made in a different way. Partner to the Wind is another of Murphey’s own songs, a look at the cowboy’s long time partnership with nature, and with loneliness.

The band Bearfoot has its origin in the west, too, even farther west than Texas: the original band members first got together at music camps in Alaska. After several line up changes and a move to base themselves in Nashville, the band builds on their earlier sound and takes it out father in their third album Bearfoot: American Story.. The song Feel Free, which lead singer Nora Jane Struthers wrote with Grammy winning country and folk musician Tim O’Brien, resonates with the finding of those quiet spaces, and the need to find them, in all of life’s circumstances. The Dust, which showcases Struthers’ fine voice and phrasing, is a tale from the history of the American frontier. When You’re Away is a folk jazz bluegrass flavored love song, while Kill That Rooster is a take on life’s exasperations that’s both funny and bittersweet. Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and percussion as well as fine lead and harmony singing from the five members of Bearfoot, along with a batch of bluegrass and folk tinged songs live up to the title of telling an American story.

Bluegrass, western music, and classic country: three different ways to celebrate the range of country music storytelling during country music month.

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