Posted in culture, music

The common thread between country music and prog rock (no really!)

This is extremely heavy on the embedded videos.  Most don’t have lyrics embedded but the lyrics can be looked up.

So I know this makes me kind of weird and a little stereotypical for an Okie. But my absolute favorite music is country music. Not whatever the hell they’re calling country these days. But actual country music from back in the day, or country music that at least sounds like country music. Not this crap it sounds like easy listening with a southern accent.  Or pop with a southern accent.  Or this weird overproduced bullshit that sometimes passes for country these days. But country country. And sometimes there is good country that’s made these days, but it’s hard to find.

But I do like a lot of other kinds of music. There aren’t many kinds of music where I don’t like some of the things that are in them. And one of the things I like sometimes is prog rock. Prog rock is kinda hard to describe, but like you know those long 70s concept albums and that kind of thing. That’s prog rock.

Anyway, I finally figured out what it is that draws me to both country music and prog rock. It’s the thing they both have in common: the storytelling. They don’t tell stories in the same way. But they do very often tell stories. I would of course love to hear some kind of fusion of country and prog rock.  But the closest thing I could find was a weird bluegrass-esque version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.  Yes this exists, this is “Comfortably Numb” by Luther Wright and the Wrongs:

I can’t find country prog or prog country or whatever you would call that combination. It’s possible, but there’s reasons the two are unlikely to mix much. Unfortunately.  Because I would love to hear it.

In country music, the song usually tells a story. It’s often the story of one person.  It will be often told from the point of view of that person, even if the singer isn’t that person. The singer may take on the persona of whoever they’re singing about. And that is normal common practice in how country does these things.

The singer will immerse themselves in this character and bring it to life.  On a very personal first-person level a lot of the time. They might be singing about other people too, it’s not always in first-person. But there’s usually a story. Sometimes it’s a fairly involved story.  Sometimes more of a character sketch.  Sometimes just one character at one moment in time, and what they’re going through. And it’s usually limited to the one song, they don’t do entire albums that are all one story. Even if they do an album on a theme, they’re gonna have just one story per song.

In prog rock, you often get elaborate stories. They often have a long plot.  They may jump around between characters, not making it easy to understand what’s going on. And they take place over the course of an entire album. It’s called a concept album. I used to, not knowing the term concept album, just call them story albums. Not all concept albums tell a story that way. But a lot of them do. And a lot of them it’s a long elaborate story, told over the course of an entire set of songs. Sometimes it goes in order like a regular story. Sometimes it’s nonlinear, with callbacks to different parts of it in the shape of the music itself. It’s definitely different than the way country would handle a story.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One of my favorite country songs is Lacy J. Dalton’s “The Girls From Santa Cruz”. As far as I’m concerned it’s about lesbian horse thieves. That’s what I want to believe anyway.

So it’s about two women who steal a stallion. They get chased down by a Texas Ranger.  The character who is singing is lamenting the fact that she has lost her companion Kim. Because Kim and the Ranger fall in love in the end and forget about her. She sounds a lot more broken up about what happened than someone just losing a friend or partner in crime. So to me it’s about lesbian horse thieves, and you can’t convince me otherwise. But you can see either way it’s a pretty simple story.

I grew up on a prog rock album called “Pink World”, by Planet P Project. It is a long double record that tells an elaborate story. Sometimes from the point of view of many characters.  Here’s the full album, all 1 hour 20 minutes of it:

The plot is a little more elaborate:

A boy drinks bad water behind a factory and get psychic superpowers. He starts predicting the end of the world (they wrote this during the Cold War). He gets taken into a government lab where they try to study him, but they’re also afraid of him. And he escapes. He can’t talk. But he can move things with his mind and he can read people’s minds. And someone pushes the button. Nuclear war breaks out.  This boy, Artemis, starts a cult and ends up saving a bunch of people by creating some kind of barrier that they can live behind. Except everything in this place he created resembles 1984. Or some kind of totalitarian dystopian cult type thing. They stay like that unchanging who knows how long. Artemis decides he made a mistake and just abandons everyone. And that’s the end of the album.

A lot of twists and turns and weirdness in there that I didn’t even get into. But you can see it’s an elaborate plot that takes place over two whole records.

Here’s a couple specific songs from it if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing.

“What I See” (from the point of view of Artemis predicting nuclear war and what he’ll do about it):

“In the Zone” (from the point of view of a resident of the cult/dystopia Artemis creates to survive the war):

Prog rock and country obviously handle stories in entirely different ways. But they do both tell stories.

Here are some more examples.  It’ll be a little country-heavy because the prog rock examples are often longer songs or entire albums at once:

COUNTRY: “Grandma’s Song” (Gail Davies)

PROG ROCK: “Thick as a Brick” (Jethro Tull)

COUNTRY: “Jesse Younger” (Kris Kristofferson)

COUNTRY:  The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band):

PROG ROCK:  Doomsday Afternoon (full album — about authoritarianism and environmental destruction) (Phideaux)

PROG ROCK:  “Candybrain” (one song from Doomsday Afternoon) (Phideaux)

PROG ROCK: “Micro Softdeathstar” (another song from Doomsday Afternoon) (Phideaux)

COUNTRY:  “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” (Kathy Mattea)

COUNTRY: “This Van’s For Sale” (Wayne Parker)

COUNTRY: “Calico Plains” (Pam Tillis)

COUNTRY: “Up With the Wind” (Lacy J. Dalton)

PROG ROCK: Number Seven (full album — about a dormouse who survives nuclear war)

PROG ROCK: “Darkness at Noon” (Phideaux, one song from Number Seven)

COUNTRY:  “I’m Hungry, I’m Tired” (Gail Davies)

PROG ROCK: “Part of the Machine” (Jethro Tull)

 

PROG ROCK: “Moribund the Burgermeister’ (Peter Gabriel) – yeah I know people don’t count his solo career after Genesis as prog rock, but this song was.

COUNTRY: “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” (Kathy Mattea)

COUNTRY: “Beer Drinkin’ Song” (Lacy J. Dalton)

COUNTRY: “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” (Charlie Daniels Band)

COUNTRY: “That’s Just About Right” (Blackhawk)

COUNTRY: “Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard)

COUNTRY: “Dakota (The Dancing Bear)” (Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge)

PROG ROCK: “The Hazards of Love 3” (The Decemberists)

COUNTRY: “Changing All The Time”

PROG ROCK:  “Static” (Planet P Project)

PROG ROCK: “Epitaph” (King Crimson)

COUNTRY: “Somebody Killed Dewey Jones Daughter” (Lacy J. Dalton)

COUNTRY: “Little Brother” (Wayner Parker)

Music as a means of storytelling is really important to me.  Music is one of the first ways I could understand and use language. It’s still easier for me to understand something if it’s a song.  Or to communicate by singing or playing music. There’s something about music that brings language together.  It brings comprehension together. It brings lots of things about communication and understanding together.

By the way, the guy who made “Pink World”, his name’s Tony Carey. He does his prog rock science-fiction music under the name of Planet P Project. What initially drew me to Tony Carey was not that “Pink World” was this giant story album. It was Tony Carey’s accent. Because Tony Carey is an Okie. Like my family. So he sounded familiar, he had that weird combination of a California accent and a bit of southern thrown in. And it reminded me of my father’s accent so I just felt comfortable with this guy’s music.

I later found out he did a song about the Dust Bowl (“Dust”):

And the funny thing is, as prog rock as Planet P Project is, someone once asked Tony Carey if he would ever do a country song. His reply was, “They’re all country songs.”