Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Three Chords and the Truth

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in May 1977, I was taking the escalator up and out of the Universitetskaya metro stop near my Moscow State University student residence, when I saw two fellow American exchange students, both like me from Ohio, coming down the adjacent escalator.  Where you guys headed? I recall asking. The girls responded with great excitement: “ Come on, Khlebchick! We’re going to see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Why don’t you join us?”

They went on to rush an explanation of where the American country band was playing and how the two of them had gotten tickets. I hesitated, not knowing much about Nitty Gritty and not really “into country” at that time. And then my chance had passed; the girls were gone.

A day or so later when Laura and Deb told me about how great the concert was, and how they’d been invited back stage to meet the stars and then to the after-concert party at the US Embassy, I was deflated. (And if my memory serves me correctly, they reported that Comrade Brezhnev, apparently a fan of American roots music, was also in the audience.)

Now I realize what an opportunity I had missed. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band might have had less rock star flash than similarly-influenced units from the era, groups such as The Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but its members were seriously talented, and by recording with Maybelle Carter and Vassar Clements on the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, they not only gave a nod to their “bluegrass” roots but put themselves at the forefront of a “country and western” (C&W) revival.

The C&W appellation actually included a number of early 20th century folk music styles, from reels and ballads to cowboy songs, accompanied either solo on guitar or with a combination of guitar, violin, harmonica, banjo and dulcimer. The genre in its various forms originally gained popular appeal in the 1920s with recordings by Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole. By the 1930s groups such as the Skillet Lickers and the Carter Family as well as individuals such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe had become widely known through nascent radio broadcasts.

But soon the music had been overshadowed, first by jazz and rhythm and blues, then by pop and rock. By the late 70s, however, country had shed its “western” nomenclature and polished its rough-hewn edges, reinventing itself as it incorporated elements of pop, rock and R&B, gaining audiences far beyond its blue-collar Appalachian and prairie home. Country’s popularity in the USA today is unparalleled. In fact, according to a recent Harris survey, 60% of America’s adult population like country music, supporting 2,600 full-time country radio stations. That’s up 92% since I was in Moscow missing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

This playlist includes a range of songs from beneath the country umbrella, including a bluegrass number by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe (its alleged father), country rock by the likes of Pure Prairie League and the Marshall Tucker Band, pop country by 60s idol Skeeter Davis and Canada’s Cowboy Junkies, and the roots Nashville sound by legends Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline.  Of course, there’s also a representative song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

If that was good enough for Comrade Brezhnev, it’s good enough for me. Enjoy!  

* This essay was written for the Daddy Peet Expresso program entitled "Three Chords and the Truth":