Old Country Comfort: How the British Might Save American Music (Again)

The British have been America’s best musical allies since the ’60s. They saved rock ‘n’ roll with a host of loveable bands that’d cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and not Pat Boone and Fabian. They reintroduced the blues to its homeland via Cream, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin and, most recently, it’s the British who may have the upper hand in country music. As with rock and the blues, the British contributions to country somehow strike much closer to the root than we might expect.

This Old World appreciation for the New World can be traced to the ’60s British Invasion. It’s hard to forget the ever-affable Ringo Starr’s heartfelt — and decidedly authentic — 1965 performance of “Act Naturally”, a track that Buck Owens and the Buckaroos had scored a number one hit with in 1963. Whatever the factors that led the Fab Four to choose that song as a vehicle for Ringo’s recorded lead vocal debut, the result is pure genius. Starr’s range and timbre were a perfect fit for the country chords and something about his character — the Beatle who didn’t really write and who really didn’t sing — allowed the melancholic lyrics to resonate all the more deeply with listeners. (“Act Naturally” was released as the B-side to “Yesterday” and although some see Ringo’s tune as a kind of relief to McCartney’s world-weary classic, the truth is that these two pieces have more in common than we might think.)

The crown jewel of the Starr solo catalogue is the Cute One’s 1970 album Beaucoups of Blues, the follow-up to the same year’s charming but somewhat ill-fitting standards collection Sentimental Journey. Beaucoups is, upon first and then all subsequent listens, thoroughly charming. Born after Starr met pedal steel master Pete Drake while both were guests on George Harrison’s blissfully exhaustive All Things Must Pass, the record was tracked rather quickly in Nashville with Drake assembling a host of crack Nashville players and selecting a dynamic range of material for Starr.

Among the best tracks are the Larry Kingston and Fred Dycus composition “Fastest Growing Heartache in the West” and the Kingston-penned “Wine, Women and Loud Happy Songs”. The former is the story of a goodhearted man in love with a good-timing woman, the latter reads as a snapshot of Starr’s life at that moment in time. On those — and the ten others that comprise the original album — Starr sounds infinitely more comfortable and in tune with the material than he did on Sentimental Journey.

Moreover, it fits him better than the proto disco of “Oh My My” (from 1973’s fab but less interesting Ringo) and the full-on disco of 1977’s Ringo the 4th. His drift toward contemporary pop and collaborations with a host of usual suspects isn’t disappointing, it’s expected. But no matter how many collaborations he launches with Joe Walsh or Todd Rundgren nothing erases the standing of his country era as his best work — even some of his later ’70s classics were penned by writers with their roots in Nashville, whether Roger Miller (“Husbands and Wives”) or Hoyt Axton (“No No Song”).

If the former Beatle was busy rubbing elbows with American hillbillies, The Kinks were proving that they were the real English counterparts via Muswell Hillbillies, an album that focused on growing poverty and increasing alienation in the UK while using country colors. Tim O’Brien’s version of “Muswell Hillbilly” on the 2002 tribute album This Is Where I Belong added a dash of poignancy to the track as O’Brien transformed the piece into thorough Americana to the point that Muswell might just as well have been Muskogee. It’s curious that Davies, no stranger to the young man’s blues or white knuckled frustration, chose a mellower approach with which to sound his rage, perhaps an acknowledgement that beneath all the major pentatonic scales and weepy pedal steel runs, country music still maintains a healthy sense of anger.

No one could have predicted that one of punk’s most visible fists, those belonging to Elvis Costello, would quickly unclench themselves and reach for a host of country classics. It’s easy to see Costello’s genre-hopping these days as both maddening and confusing, but his 1981 album Almost Blue with compositions from Hank Williams, George Jones, and Gram Parsons, was a flawed but brave move for the former computer programmer.

Costello has a surprisingly decent voice for country, the songs often bringing out the more feminine qualities in his voice. Although he’s no Ringo, his rendition of the Jerry Chesnut composition “A Good Year for the Roses” is one of the more enduring selections from the album, although critics were less enamored of the record as a whole. His more recent flirtations with the genre, such as a collaboration with Loretta Lynn, “I Felt the Chill” from 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, is neither as interesting as his earlier attempts nor as brave as his work with Burt Bacharach.

Costello’s longtime friend Nick Lowe’s flirtations with and exaltations of the country genre warrant an entire article — if not book — of their own. The warm irony that populated Lowe’s early albums hinted that he was capable of wry, country-esque turns of phrase and conveying pure but decidedly un-corny sentiment. A series of increasingly American-inflected albums dotted his early ‘80s catalogue and his work with then-wife Carlene Carter added an extra dimension to his career. Although this departure resulted in increasingly smaller commercial dividends, his standing as an artist of note has grown, as evidenced by recent albums such as At My Age (2007), The Convincer (2001), and The Old Magic (2011). By mixing elements of classic R&B, country, and even elements of ’50s crooner music, Lowe has diversified with age and suggested time and again that his best work may yet be on the horizon.

We might also count Robert Plant’s 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, as one of the better examples of the British-Nashville alliance. Not only did Plant collaborate with one of the reigning queens of American country and bluegrass he also managed to remind us that it wasn’t just American blues that informed his earlier work — like Raising Sand his 2010 solo outing Band of Joy even employed some of the best country players available, including Emmylou Harris stalwart Buddy Miller.

Veteran producer and songwriter Dave Stewart threw his hat into the country ring earlier this year with The Blackbird Diaries. Recorded in Nashville with John McBride the album has country written all over it, despite ultimately emerging as a very solid pop recording that flirts with the American genre the way that Elton John had some decades earlier. Although it’s no Beaucoups of Blues, it has more of its heart in the Nashville of the past than Brad Paisley’s 2011 state of the genre address This Is Country.

If there’s one contemporary British artist who suggests that there is hope for country music it may be Teddy Thompson. The son of legendary folkers Richard and Linda Thompson, the 35-year-old has been turning out topnotch, country-inflected albums since 2000. Whether his self-titled debut or this year’s Bella, Thompson has proven that he has an authentic ear for country music, whether the countrypolitan leanings of 2005’s Separate Ways (that album’s “Altered State” should have been a massive radio hit and perhaps can be one day) or the heartbreakingly beautiful 2007 outing Upfront & Down Low on which he covered Ernest Tubb (“Walking the Floor Over You”), Elvis Presley (“I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”), Dolly Parton (“My Blue Tears”) and perennial favorites the Louvin Brothers, albeit with an unexpected choice (“You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye)”.

As he’s done on other albums, he’s showing his love for the Everly Brothers here, covering “Change of Heart” and “Don’t Ask Me to Be Friends” as well as the Boudleaux Bryant-penned “Let’s Think About Living”. (His take on Leon Payne’s “Psycho” for the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake of the eponymous film is another career highlight.) More than merely demonstrating his superior taste, it also suggests that Thompson sees beyond the obvious canon of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and into the deeper recesses of a fertile and deep-reaching music.

His current release, Bella, features superior material such as “The Next One” and “The One I Can’t Have”, songs that are as good as any that he’s penned to this point in his career. Thompson and his father work together with some regularity but he’s also collaborated with his mother one two superior albums under her name, Fashionably Late (2002) and Versatile Heart (2007) — and a current tour with k.d. lang further demonstrates where his real musical passions rest.

This list is by no means exhaustive — more could be written about Rod Stewart’s early solo albums and their inclusion of material such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “That’s Alright”; guitar greats such as Yes’s Steve Howe and Dire Straits main man Mark Knopfler borrowed liberally from country music in their playing, never shying from the obvious debt that both men owed to Nashville guitar guru Chet Atkins.

There are other less visible British country artists — such as John Miller and Brian Hunter — and even websites and radio stations dedicated to country music in Britain. None of this is the surprise that, say, an American Skiffle Organization might be, but it does bode well for the future of the genre, especially given the apparent stagnant state of American-made country music at the moment, in a year when the genre seems to be bubbling along with a dangerous listlessness.

Perhaps it only makes sense that a nation that has suffered from a widening gap between its wealthy and its poor, from crumbling industries and high unemployment and grappled with questions of nationalism, could be the one that writes the template for country music in the new century. All that’s needed, it seems, is a highly visible voice to make it happen.

Anyone have Sir Paul’s number?