Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rant #143: I Don't Like Country Music, But Campbell Had the Soup, Nesmith the White-Out

Country music is ingrained in our country's rich musical heritage. Some call it white people's soul music, but whatever it is, it is, from Hank Williams all the way up to the latest country stars.

Country music was often thought about as "hillbilly" music by many, and this thought was perpetuated by many of the popular country acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Tennessee Ernie Ford. It wasn't his fault, he and others were just perpetuating this stereotype to get their music heard.

Ford was probably the first real country music performer I can ever remember seeing on TV, and I am not just talking about his appearances on "I Love Lucy." For some reason, I do remember watching his TV show as a young child--I must have liked the way he talked, which was so different than anything I was hearing around my Queens, New York, neighborhood.

Anyway, country music has always embraced television as a platform to get its music heard. Who can forget "Hee Haw," the CBS castoff that lasted for two decades as a syndicated show? It made Buck Owens, Roy Clark and the rest of the ever-changing cast pretty big stars in the late 1960s and 1970s.

But, to finally get to my point, with country so much a part of our musical landscape, I have never been much of country music fan, as a kid or to this day. Maybe I just don't get it, but I just don't like the music, whether it is traditional country music or the watered down, pop-oriented stuff (heavily influenced by the Eagles) that we hear today.

But I always liked Glen Campbell and Michael Nesmith.

Campbell was one of the most sought after session guitarists in pop music in the 1960s. He almost seems like a Zelig-like figure. He played on so many hit singles before the general public knew who he was--everything from the Beach Boys to the Monkees--and he also put out a slew of interesting albums before he became a megastar.

And yes, he became a megastar through the medium of television, as did Nesmith.

The "Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" ran for just a few seasons, but the music that came out of that show was substantial. Campbell had his biggest across the board hits during this period--"Gentle On My Mind," "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" come to mind--and the playing on that show was legendary.

Sure, a lot of purists probably thumbed their noses at Campbell, but he was one of the people who helped bring country music to the mainstream.

In the intervening years, he has had numerous hits--remember "Rhinestone Cowboy"--and a lot of tabloid coverage due to his herky jerky personal life, but Campbell is, and will always be, the real thing, at least to me.

Campbell, along with Nesmith--for his country-rock in the guise of pop that he did while he was very high profile with the Monkees--are, to me, the unsung heroes of bringing country music to the real mainstream of American music. You can say the same for Ray Charles, whose legendary country/soul/pop crossover albums are certainly part of the equation--but both Campbell and Nesmith used television to get their musical points across, each and every week.

Nesmith has often been derided as a phony, every since his days with the Monkees and the controversy surrounding the musicianship on their early recordings. But starting with the first Monkees album, Nesmith knew exactly what he was doing. Not only did he write, play and produce his own tracks, but, as the Monkees fame grew, he was able to use both his bandmates and top sessions performers to make his music viable.

Although he never had a huge hit on his own with the Monkees, his tunes adorn Monkee albums from the first LP to the next to last one the group produced: "Sweet Young Thing," "Good Clean Fun," "You Told Me," "Salesman," and "Tapioca Tundra" are just a few of his Monkees tunes.

His music also ventured into other areas, such as psychedelia, but I think he was always true to his country music roots. The incredible popularity of the Monkees enabled us to hear country music because it wasn't country music with the Monkees, it was pop. So we heard an evolving country music almost through osmosis.

Nesmith has done so many other things since his Monkees years that it would take another post to list them all, but he is certainly one of the forefathers of modern country music, even though few would acknowledge that fact. His early non-Monkees albums embellished him as a ground-breaking musician, and his hit "Joanne" solidified his legacy during that period.

So, for you Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift fans, go into your parents' record collections and find their Glen Campbell albums, and Monkees albums, and listen up--you will see where your roots really are.

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