Country Music: Side Roads
October is celebrated as country music month. That may have you thinking of Nashville or Branson, or perhaps Austin or Atlanta, or maybe country music at the county fair or the local bar. Country music lives in all these places, it is true. Whether you like the glitz of big stage shows or the rowdy bar scene or the quiet listening room, one thing the varied flavors of country music have in common is that the music tells stories.
The stories found in the music of the artists here are a bit -- or a lot -- off the beaten path of mainstream country. In their own unique ways, though, they all draw from the roots of country music to tell their tales.
Monticello is the name of a small town in New Mexico in the American southwest. Monticello is also the name of a recent album by the Hard Road Trio, with music that adds dashes of southwestern spice to bluegrass, country, swing, jazz, and folk, making an Americana mix. The trio is Steve Smith on mandolin, vocals, and guitar, Chris Sanders on vocals and guitar, and Annie Luna on bass and guitar. The songs, all original, include Beacon, whose lyrics and melody are a message of hope from a faraway friend (“one foot in front of the other can take you halfway around the word,” they sing). My Walden is nature and reflection, and 2:00 Moon is a lively instrumental piece. All of this is delivered with a sense of connection and joy, both in the music and in sharing of it.
The Joe Craven Trio knows about the joy of music, and the sometimes downright craziness of it too, which you’ll know if you’ve seen Craven on stage. John R. Burr on keyboards and key bass, Rich Kuhns on accordion, and Kendrick Freeman on drum set, percussion, and vocals join Craven on the mainly instrumental album All Four One, which includes musical references to blues, jazz, bluegrass, old time, Caribbean and a half dozen other sorts of music you might be listening for, bringing all of it into a sound that’s fun to hear.
“This is going to be referred to as a gospel record, I suppose,” says Kelly Joe Phelps of his album Brother Sinner and the Whale. Known as an ace lap steel guitar player, for this album Phelps shifts to bottleneck slide. His songwriting and singing come to the fore as well, focused, as he suggests, on spiritual themes. He drives the old forms of gospel and blues and spiritual song in directions that sound both traditional and contemporary with lyrics inspired by the book of Jonah, the the vintage gospel of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, and his own reflections, leading to songs including Pilgrims Reach and Brother Pilgrim.
For Ed Littlefield Junior, the American West is the source. On My Western Home, he offers songs including Darcy Farrow, Red River Valley, and other gems, well loved, well worn, and in Littlefield’s hands, well respected and yet sung with the same ease and manner that you’d find when working cowboys sing these stories around the campfire of an evening.
Radmilla Cody knows the American west, too: she is of the Dine, the Navajo. Her album Shi Keyah/Songs for the People is just that, a sharing of stories in song from the funny to the thoughtful. The songs were written by her uncle, Hernan Cody. Together, they offer a picture of life on tribal lands today and its lasting connections with the past. Whether you understand Navajo or not (there are song notes in English in the album booklet), just listen first. The stories come clear, and so do the reasons Radmilla Cody is one of the best loved traditional style Navajo singers.
The Rankin Family is well-loved in their native Cape Breton in Atlantic Canada, too, and they’ve taken their music to many parts of the world. While it remains distinctively Cape Breton, much of their music would sit well in Americana and country playlists as well. On their album North Country, Jimmy Rankin's original song Fisherman’s Son speaks economically and eloquently of the handing on of tradition, while North Country, the title track. is a vivid portrait of returning to a well loved place.
In this month of celebrating country music, travel the off the beaten path to hear the stories these musicians tell. You will be well rewarded for the journey.
Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com
You may also find her work at Music Road, Strings, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print.
Press photo: Hard Road Trio