Monday, April 20, 2015

"Heartache, Lust, Jealousy, Revenge, Violence, Selfishness, Pride,Disenchantment, and Bedroom Blues," by Jean Shepard and Freddie Hart

The Neon And The Rain (1967)
Many Happy Hangovers (1966)
"Three chords and the truth." There's a reason why songwriter Harlan Howard's definition of a great country song is quoted so often. It's pithy, easy to remember, catchy, rolls of the tongue, like Howard's own best songs—and it embodies the essence of the aphoristic: complexity in simplicity. Just how it is that three chords are enough to capture something as permanent yet elusive as truth? I find myself drawn to country music because of its comforting, affecting formality, the knowing order it gives to chaos. And there's plenty of chaos to be arranged in keys, chords, rhymes, tropes, bridges, and choruses. Just look at any jukebox, or your favorite playlists.

As I've written before, I'm enamored of country music produced prior to the 1970s, before pop crossover success became deathly catnip to Nashville songwriters, and before production became slick and bloodless, the rural honky-tonk edges of the previous few decades smoothed over, ignored for the sake of radio. There's been a long tradition of country singers who chose tuxedos over Nudie suits, crooning over yodeling, strings over pedal steel, and supper clubs over honky-tonks—thanks to individual temperaments, splintering and evolving audiences, and producers Owen BradleyChet Atkins, and Billy Sherrill, among others—but there have also been regular, twangy volleys from the other side of town. Two albums released within a year of each other—Jean Shepard's Many Happy Hangovers and Freddie Hart's The Neon And The Rain—reflect a certain strain of mid-1960's country music that still aimed for the charts but wasn't yet neutered by orchestral string arrangements, laid-back playing, and softened tones. The playing on each of these albums is crisp, vigorous and precise, the kind of music made for AM transistor radios. These songs explore heartache, lust, jealousy, revenge, violence, selfishness, pride, disenchantment, and bedroom blues—your average day in country music—restraining them in formal, radio-ready decorum without sacrificing emotional content.

Shepard was a pioneer among female country music singers; Hart never quite achieved the commercial success his singing and interpreting deserved; alas, neither is talked about quite often enough, it seems to me. These tunes that amount to a heated conversation between two great singers, a six-act melodrama of domestic duress. The real thing.


porcupine said...

Love Jean Shepard. I think of her as a west coast c&w performer as Ken Nelson helmed her recordings. Nelson, Bradley, Sherrill, Atkins all brilliant men doing whatever it took to keep the bills paid, though at the expense of smoothing it out.

I read a Tammy Wynette book (title escapes me) with some great info on Sherrill I'd never seen before. An entire book on him is overdue.

Freddie Hart had a gold record and #17 pop hit "Easy Loving" in 1971, its main instrument an organ, to my ears not a Hammond B-3 but the kind they used to demonstrate at the mall. Still a good record.

Anonymous said...

Love Jean Shepard tho I believe she recorded w/ Ken Nelson on the west coast and not in Nashville.

Nelson, Atkins, Sherrill,and Bradley are all giants of American recorded music. The latter three sanded the rough edges down but it was in the name of the "biz" part of showbiz.

I think of those three Sherrill is the most unfairly maligned. The records he made!! I read a Tammy Wynette book with some great backstory on Billy; he needs an entire book.

Freddie Hart had a gold record in '71 with "Easy Loving," a top 20 pop record. What little steel guitar there is on the record fights it out with an organ, which to my ears is not a Hammond B-3 but more like those organs demonstrated at the mall. It is a great record, worthy of its sales and chart rating.