Big Sound Saturdays: No Bed of Roses, Vol. 1 (Classic Country)

“Civilization begins with a rose. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. It continues with blooming and it fastens clearly upon excellent examples.”
– Gertrude Stein, As Fine as Melanctha

Genre-wise, contemporary country music is notoriously slippery. Even after its pop turn in the nineties, it wears a few different hats—alt country, pop country, country rock, bro-country, and country rap (hick hop!)—but the sound of each genre intermingles, so that alt-country NPR darling Kacey Musgraves still sings with the learned, dulcet tones of Carrie Underwood and bro-country denizen Blake Shelton “raps” his way through most of “Boys ‘Round Here”. Because country sound’s becoming so promiscuous, my pop country-hating pals usually resort to hailing the genre through its images. Tractors, country roads, beer, rednecks, true love, short shorts, God, and, unfortunately, the beach are the benchmarks of musical discernment. Reused and recycled, they form a veritable language of country pop.

I’ve already written for ACRO on country music’s landscape of body parts, and like the “crazy arms and legs” of country musical history, roses—the heart of this week’s mix—don’t sit in one single sound. As part one of No Bed of Roses, a new series for Big Sound Saturdays, I’ve pulled together a handful of songs from what’s turned out to be a staggeringly extensive list of country standards about the rose. “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “When The Roses Bloom Again,” and “San Antonio Rose” are oft-revisited, (I’ve pulled the clean version of “Yellow Rose,” which has, like much early country music, its origins in minstrelsy), with performances ranging from classic country to prewar country to western swing. “Honeysuckle Rose,” penned by Fats Waller and performed by the great Django Reinhardt, is now a well-worn jazz standard. Some of the more surprising tunes—“She’s a Hard Boiled Rose,” sung by Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles, a group of Piedmont textile workers from Gaston County, North Carolina, for example, or the insinuating instrumental “Rose of Caracas” by Neville Marcano, “the growling tiger of calypso”—snuggle up to and elide the histories they’re birthed from. Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s version of “Death of Queen Jane,” Child Ballad #170 with its most likely origins in the 16th century, mourns that “the red rose of England,” Queen Jane herself, “shall flourish no more.”

Gertrude Stein’s jingling, staccato poetry is so apt for the country rose. When she penned “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in “Sacred Emily,” Stein redirected language, focalized the dependence of each discreet word on its referents and its context, and celebrated its continual redefinition through rhyme, repetition, re-contextualization, and sound. If “civilization begins with a rose,” the “rose” is language’s first iteration, progressively deracinated and rescripted as the associations we have with roses take over the rose itself. What is Ben Hall’s “Rose of Monterey” against Prince Albert’s “Waltz of Roses?” Billy Murray’s “Baby Rose” alongside Charlie Poole’s “Budded Rose?” Meanings multiply, confusing and emptying the rose as it floats its crazy thorns through sonic space. “It continues with blooming and it fastens clearly upon excellent examples,” sure. Now try to hear, a la Stein, what roses sound like.


Big Sound Saturdays: Ramblin’ ‘Round Your Town

When Waylon Jennings had a hit in 1974 with “Ramblin’ Man” off of his eponymous album, the song had already walked, in peripatetic stride, the far-out rambling exchange of 20th century American music. Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, one of the earliest recorded old-time country string bands (famous, in part, for the standard, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”), cut “Ramblin’ Blues” as early as 1928, but we can assume the tune is much older. Save for the Hackberry Ramblers, whose Cajun-laced western swing is a little outside of standard genre-fare, the ramblin’ songs that I’ve compiled stick within the confines of prewar and acoustic blues, old-time country, outlaw country, and the folk revival.

Where Robert Johnson’s ramble is a disconcerting polyphony of voice and shrieking guitar, “mean things on my mind,” most of these artists puff their chests out while they wander. Hank Williams’ classic “Ramblin’ Man” consolidates his aura of romantic untouchability; a caution that hearkens forth to Jennings’ ramblin’ machismo 23 years later, and Memphis Minnie’s “Nothin’ In Ramblin’,” recorded 11 years before Williams’ tune, throws it back, hanging up her own wandering hat, getting married, and settling down. Rambling, of an etymology that’s tantilizingly, poetically unknown, could be a digressive wandering of body or of mind—unsystematic contemplation, unrestrained ambling, “easy riding.” No wonder it was picked up so zealously by the “outlaws,” so enamored with the masculine tradition of aimless philosophizing.

Fittingly, “Ramblin’,” Barbara Dane’s throaty walk through “your town,” is actually a reworking of hobo pioneer Woody Guthrie’s 1944 “Ramblin’ ‘Round.” It’s a beautiful thought, to wander freely, and these songs pay tribute that’s sometimes careful, more often wild and big.  Dane’s reworking of Guthrie’s alienation—“I’ve never met a friend I know, as I go rambling around”—makes me think this tradition has meat on its bones, isn’t just a walking boy skeleton of outlaw lust and male alienation. And truly, all of these songs hold up, especially, funnily, together.

%d bloggers like this: