[2 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Country Funk wasn’t ever a thing, not really anyway. It’s not some long-forgotten part of music history, or a subgenre that’s been buried by time. The term “country funk” wasn’t really on anybody’s lips as we transitioned from the ‘60s into the ‘70s. And yet, here we’re presented with Country Funk 1969-1975, a new compilation from Light in the Attic, a label that knows quite a bit about reissuing classic material and putting together compelling compilations.
Country Funk 1969-1975, despite its claim that the genre existed, isn’t trying to revise history so much as it is smartly connecting dots. As country music grew popular and its artists drifted away from Nashville, often—as these songs document—heading to LA for fame and fortune, the palate of country music expanded. Since it rose organically out of folk music, among other traditions, it was malleable. So here we see R&B and soul working its way in with sultry backing vocals and, yes, funky bass lines along with syncopated drums. We’re given some pretty popular examples of this in classics like Bobby Charles’s “Street People” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone”, both of which sound revitalized here among like-minded tunes.
One of the great things Country Funk is show how this music crosses racial lines, and not just in sound. We get a black singer-songwriter like “Johnny Adams” delivering the kind of swampy country-rock Duane Allman spent his life perfecting. Meanwhile, Johnny Jenkins turns in maybe the best tune here with “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”, a song written by Dr. John but made brilliant by the interplay of Jenkins’s guitar with, who else, Duane Allman. On the flip side, country singer Bobbie Gentry turns in a soul burner with “He Made A Woman Out of Me”, the kind of sultry track that would give Roberta Flack’s “Reverend Lee” a run for its money. There’s also Tony Joe White’s half-goofy “Stud Spider”, which sounds like a dusty, backroad take on the R&B spoken-word tradition.
With the mix of country dust and funk sweat in these songs, it also create opportunities for the songs to also twist and question long-standing thematic tropes. The compilation begins with three songs—Dale Hawkins’s “LA Memphis Tyler Texas”, John Randolph Marr’s “Hello LA, Bye-Bye Birmingham”, and Johnny Adams’s “Georgia Morning Dew”—that all break from the deep regionalism and homeland pride of country music. Adams’s ends up being the most poignant, as he muses on his home from the West Coast, but we still see people not wandering the highways on that romantic lark, but relocated somewhere new and taking in a new atmosphere. Even Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland”—as brilliant here as it is on the classic Heartworn Highways documentary—which celebrates country living, feels a bit removed and reminiscent of it. We see the truck drivin’ subject of Dennis the Fox’s campy “Piledriver” turn out to be a woman, not a hardened man. We also have stuff like Bob Darin’s “Light Blue”, which is a revision of an entire musical persona. This isn’t the same Bobby Darin that sang “Mack the Knife”. Instead, this is the Darin involved closely with Robert Kennedy’s presidential run. The Darin that was there when Kennedy was killed and then sold his possessions and lived in near seclusion and started making dark, sludgy, beautiful tunes like “Light Blue”.
All over Country Funk we see people trying new sounds, trying on new hats, living in new locales, testing out new ideas. It’s often fascinating, and the songs nearly all have an immediate thump that’s hard to ignore. But if the overall effect of the compilation is a strong one, there are some holes. For one, if these songs seek to turn country themes on their head, they can sometimes over correct. Mac Davis’s “Lucas Was a Redneck” may work against the strain of country music that romanticizes this kind of character, but Lucas comes off as too despicable here and Davis seems all too giddy to tear him down. “Who’s gonna miss you when you’re gone?” he sneers. “Will it be the black man you call a nigger, the hippie that you beat up just ‘cause you was bigger?” Davis may be right to tear this kind of thing down, but there’s little nuance to it, and his version ends up being as easy and cartoonish as its counterparts. Similarly, Dennis the Fox’s “Piledriver” may be a woman, but she’s still objectified and not empowered by her seemingly unorthodox profession.
Country Funk 1969-1975 is still an awfully impressive feat, and a singular kind of compilation. Rather than dig into a genre we already know, or mine a famous part of musical history for new ideas—or worse, old ideas repackaged—this disc proposes a new idea, that some unified thing was happening, even if the people involved weren’t totally aware of it, even if we hadn’t given it a name, until now.