Filed under: Mixes
I’ve always loved country, from before I even knew what it was. My dad had some Glenn Campbell records, and some Don Williams – very MOR, I guess, but something always resonated with me. As I got older, people thought I was being ironic, or kitsch, or weird for the sake of it, but I always found something in this music– especially the more melancholy end – that I wasn’t finding anywhere else.
My real immersion in it started about ten years ago and now I listen to country almost more than anything else. Not just the ‘alt’ or ‘insurgent’ country stuff either: old guys like Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, The Louvin Brothers. Then the soulful 60s and 70s with Jim Ford and Tony Joe White and Bobbie Gentry. The usual roll-call of over-lauded country legends. I do quite a lot of country DJ-ing when I get the chance, too – used to do a lot of slots at The Windmill as DJ Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain and worked on some of the the Acid Country All Dayers. Now, just the odd slot here, my favourites being with cohort Jared as Randy & Earl’s Old Record Club, especially when we get to play What’s Cookin’ over in Leytonstone.
It seemed like country was irrelevant in the UK in the 90s – the old guys still listened to the big-hat Nashville stuff, or slightly more clued up Mojo reader types probably stuck with the legends. But there certainly didn’t seem to be any new UK bands at all.
Apart from The Rockingbirds.
I’ve mentioned the Rockingbirds on this and other blogs in the past. For my money, the great lost British band. And country through and through, when it was commercial suicide to be anything of the sort. They were marvellous, drunken, shambolic, heartbreaking. Nobody gave a fuck and they called it a day. If they’d have held on, or arrived even five years later, they might have reaped the benefits of the alt-country boom, got the attention they deserved.
This mix – which is made up entirely of UK country acts (or country songs from non-country acts, in some cases), from the present or the recent past – has The Rockingbirds, and particularly frontman Alan Tyler, at its heart,and it will become obvious why.
So let’s get on with it…
1. The Rockingbirds – Gradually Learning (00.00)
The first track from their first, eponymous album, and it doesn’t get any better than this. A rich, warm, yearning love song that builds to a beautiful brassy ending (courtesy of The Bad Livers – see, this was when Heavenly Records thought it was worth sending a bunch of drunken Camden cowboys to Austin, Texas). I’ve probably sung along with this song more than any other, drunk or sober…
2. Sally Timms – Tumbling Tumbleweeds (5.44)
An old and much covered Sons of the Pioneers standard, here covered beautifully by Sally Timms from the Mekons (of whom, more later). So I’ll say no more than it’s a gorgeous version sung by the 2nd person to find out I’d just asked my girlfriend to marry me (the first being my girlfriend). I didn’t know she was who she was at the time, it was a random drunken NYE in Barcelona, with fireworks and stars, and stuff like that just seemed to happen. I doubt she’ll play the wedding.
3. Richard Hawley – Coming Home (8.42)
One of the few ‘ I was a mod before you was a mod’ claims I can make these days, I came across this song bloody years ago and figured another fantastic songwriter was going to go unnoticed. It took a while, but Hawley got there. This is one of lovelier songs, only loosely country but it’s near enough and he had to be on here somewhere.
4. Robert Love – Below The Wire (12.48)
The Alabama 3 piss a lot of people off: the fake accents, the schtick, the cod-techno element. I think they’re wonderful and the h8terz can swivel. Robert Love (ie Larry Love from A3) made a solo album a couple of years back, from which this track comes. Proof if proof be need be that he really does love this stuff, it’s no gimmick.
5. The Arlenes – Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone (16.05)
The Arlenes – South London Steve and Californian Stephanie – are a band I discovered through Come Down & Meet The Folks, probably the first of the ‘donations in a pint pot’ country clubs in London. Run by Big Steve (6’6”, dammit) along with Alan Tyler, it was the first place I saw several of the bands on this mix, The Arlenes being the first. Some of their stuff can be a little smooth, if i’m honest, but always full of heart. This track, though, does all the proper lovely gorgeous yearning stuff that the best country does.They live in Nashville now and make movies and that.
6. Lincoln – Proud Of Myself (21.30)
My god, did Lincoln fuck it all up for themselves. I saw them at the Windmill first (friends of friends, etc), and they were a revelation, somehow grafting Calexico-style blasted-desert country and near-mariachi brass to a Mogwai-ish sense of grandeur and space. The guitarists hooked their trumpets onto their belts while they played their guitars, which seemed ineffably cool. But some balance of power shifted, the lead vocalist seemed to come to dominate things more and more and the songs got a tad MOR. When they introduced the otherwise wonderful, Betty Page-esque Tracey Van Daal on co-vocals, it was all over: they’d turned into an indie Beautiful South. The crowd went absolutely home. This song was one of the last good things they did, although the spirit of Heaton hovers over it nonetheless.
7. The Mekons – Lost Highway (25.49)
How the most shambolic punk band of all turned into the most shambolic country band of all is a matter of record (if you don’t know , go listen to the ridiculously seminal Fear & Whiskey and hear how). They’re still about, 30 years on, spread across the US and Europe. Jon Langford runs Bloodshot Records out of Chicago, a visionary country and roots label. He’s also a fantastic artist – his are the images that litter this piece. Anyway, Hank certainly never did it this way, and god knows if he’d have approved. But we like both kinds of music here – punk AND country.
8. Michael J Sheehy – Crawling Back To The Church (28.45)
There’s some reason I’m not supposed to like Sheehy – something someone did to someone’s girlfriend once or some other such nonsense, I really don’t remember – so I won’t say much, except that he used to be in the deeply crap Dream City Film Club and that this track is one of the best British takes on that ole Southern Gothic style I’ve ever heard.
9. Scott 4 – Hello Doctor (31.50)
Mixing krautrock with country. Well, that was never going to work. Except, sometimes, it did. Mostly when they left out the krautrock, like on this track.
10. Alan Tyler – Everybody Is A Cowboy Now (35.58)
Alan Tyler again. So, after The Rockingbirds (who I kind of knew to nod at, and got drunk with at Phoenix Festival once) Alan seemed to vanish, although other members were sighted in other bands. Then I heard about Come Down & Meet the Folks, and heard Alan was playing. In those days, it was in the Golden Lion in Camden – ludicrously small, but a great little pub. It was the end of a lovely sunny day, the light dappling the back of the room where Alan was playing. I was that warm, melancholy Sunday drunk that’s probably the best drunk of all, and then Alan did this song and my hairs stood up and my eyes welled up and I STILL can’t fucking believe the guy’s not a national hero. You may be interested to know that my nipples are actually erect as I type this and listen to the song again. The guy’s a genius and the thought that he may fade out with hardly anybody realising it actually makes me want to punch something.
11. Southern Tenant Folk Union – Sweeter Times (40.38)
I’ve written about STFU before, so: saw them first at Come Down & Meet The Folks (are you getting a sense of how much Alan is at the core of this mix?), they blew me away, and still do. This is off the first album, the new one’s out now, go buy it.
12. Redlands Palomino Co – Goodbye Love (42.56)
See if you can guess where I saw this lot first then… Like The Arlenes, who must have been an infIuence, I find some of their stuff a bit cloying and MOR, but they’re great live, seem like lovely people and wrote a song about riding a pony over fences and into the sky that made my girlfriend cry. This isn’t it.
13. The Famous Times – Springboard (47.00)
Actually, after The Rockingbirds and before I saw him again, Alan had a short-lived project with Big Steve Tree called The Famous Times. Just an EP and a single, as far as I know. This is from the single, and is one of the most beautiful songs about teenage summer crushes ever. The quality is horrible – I’m sorry, it’s a badly done vinyl rip, and the pressing wasn’t all that to start with. But when it got redone by The Arlenes later, they made it shit.
14. The Broken Family Band – The Booze & The Drugs (50.45)
I’m a bit worried about The Broken Family Band. They used to be a rubbish indie band that I never even heard, turned into a (possibly not serious) country-rock band and became absolutely brilliant. One of my favourite bands of the last few years. But the last album was a bit too rock, a bit too stadium, and last time I saw them live they had guitar solos. Although they might have been sarcastic guitar solos, it’s hard to be sure. They’re ace blokes (in a bitter and resentful way) and Steven played a song for my birthday once, so i’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. One below standard album (after several fantastic ones) is hardly a deal breaker. This song is ace to sing when you’re REALLY pissed.
15. Piney Gir – Greetings! Salutations! Goodbye! (53.15)
Actually, this is cheating because Piney Gir (who’s in 115 different bands) is actually a seppy. But she’s over here, and plays all the usual places and is great, if a bit odd and ‘kooky’. I didn’t put this tune next to a Broken Family Band track for any reason other than that it fitted, but i’m sure there’ll be gossip. Somehow, this track manages to sound like Goldfrapp doing country and yet not be shit. That’s magic.
16. Billy Bragg – You Woke Up My Neighborhood (57.15)
Who’d have thunk it? Our Billy doing a hoedowny sort of relationship song, and doing it really well. When you listen to it, try and forget that the actually rather perfect backing vocals are by that simpering twat out of REM.
17. Menlo Park – Cochon Cochon (60.20)
Mostly horrible band of Shoreditch twatmonkeys fronted by somebody famous’ son. However, they did have that crazy-haired drummer out of Acoustic Ladyland and they did make this leery, sleazy bit of quasi-cajun nonsense so what the hell…
(By the way, I know these track comments are getting shorter, but it’s not cos I lack commitment or anything. I’ve just run out of stories about Alan Tyler. He’s got a fucking bostin’ beard these days though, proper mountain man shit)
18. The Rosinators – Oblivion (63.52)
South London’s finest cajun / hillbilly / country-gospel trio. Lovely Fliss, big tall Will and the geezer who wrote the songs for kids programme about dolls living on a barge. Proper trad stuff – fiddles and a guitar and amazing harmonies. This is a song they kinda share with Alabama 3. The A3 version is, obviously, silly. This version is glorious. However, only the A3 version comes with a full set of hand movements for the chorus (go on, I’m sure you can work them out. When you have, stick a vid of you doing them on Youtube, send me a link and i’ll let you know how you did.)
19. The Rockingbirds – Band Of Dreams (66.38)
Just realised what a clumsy segue that was. Ah well, can’t be bothered to do it again. The Rockingbirds, then. This was on their second and final album and is about being The Rockingbirds. It’s a sad and cautionary tale and new young country bands could learn some lessons from these boys. For example, don’t go on those spinny, cage-type fairground rides with cans of beer from your rider in your pocket because they’ll come out, explode and cover you and lots of indie kids in booze. I’m sure there are some other lessons too, but that one always seems to occur to me first.
I went to the Rockingbirds farewell concert, at a totally sold out Highbury Garage. It was rammed, but you suspected EVERYONE who liked the Rockingbirds was there. They wouldn’t play this song because it was too painful, and when Alan came out and said goodbye and started crying, we all started crying too.
20. Alabama 3 – Peace In The Valley (70.30)
A perfect way to finish, I think. Proper rousing and surely another rebuttal for the people who persist in thinking this band is just a gimmick. There IS a gimmick, a mythology, sure – but it works, especially on their never-surpassed debut (for which this is the final track) – there’s a story and a whole world of ideas, with a serious point to it. It’s widely known that, despite being as hedonistic and variously fucked up as they’re reputed to be, they’re also one of the best read, most politically committed and all-round smart bands you’re likely to come across. This is PROPER gospel music, brother.
(I’m not going to put links to all the tracks up, the widely available stuff is widely available and the obscure stuff isn’t. However, I will put up a link to Jon Langford’s website because his art is fantastic – I just bought a book of it, and if just one of you does too, I reckon that covers me nicking his pictures. )
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