Various Artists – The Wonderful World of Depressing Country Music: Album Review

Depressing? Fill yer boots….. With tears!

Released: 13th May 2022

Label: Cherry Red/Righteous

Format: CD

Those kings of clever and quirky compilations have done it again. Stepping aside from their ongoing miscellanies of British psychedelia, this is exactly as it says on the label, and is right down my saloon, the one where I am weeping into my whisky, my sorrows all but drowned in the spit and sawdust. Actually part of the “as dug by Lux and Ivy” series, those arbiters of taste from the Cramps, with a sticker to denote that on the cover, this also suggests that Gram Parsons is too giving his seal of approval to this selection, by a further sticker. I guess the little matter that Gram, let alone Lux Interior, have each been gone some large number of years shouldn’t discourage us; had they could have, they probably would have. I like to think so.

Some people think all country music is depressing, an opinion that, frankly, depresses me, as there are oodles of upbeat C&W ditties to cheer the spirit. However, the fact is that the upbeat just ain’t so good, there being nothing like a good ol’ dirge to lift my spirits. And these tales of death, desertion, dereliction and dishonour give as good dirge as you could ever possibly want to hear. With a roster of all the usual culprits, many of whose back stories are as depressing as the material they cover, are here, from Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, to the King of country weepies, George Jones himself, Hank Snow and Don Gibson. The maudlin siblings who comprise the brothers Louvin and brothers Stanley each get a song, the preacher’s dour presence never far away, hell and damnation the next stops on the train after drunkenness and despair. Are You Afraid To Die ask the Stanley boys, as subtle as their namesake knife. And then a whole bunch of lesser-known miserabilists like the impressively named duo, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, are also here, present and correct, to ensure as enjoyable hour or so of misery as you could shake a dead dog at. (Because all dogs die in country music, like all men lie and all women leave.)

Call Off The Wedding, beseeches Goldie Hill, to open the album, to a gloriously funereal wedding march, her wails following the minister’s invitation to parade any reason why this couple should not be wed. More cheesy than a triple cheeseburger with extra cheese, it plods delightfully, the fiddle player quivering through his tears. Don Gibson then offers the first of his several featured contributions, his voice truly one of the more mournful instruments in the canon, offset by the choir, seemingly an essential in any Nashville product of the 50s into 60s. Where is Lonely Street, he asks? Indeed. With George Jones next trying, unconvincingly, to assert that There’ll Be No Tear Drops Tonight, and you’re getting the gist, his fractured vocal only ever a holler away from a yodel. Talking of, he also gives a great thrashing to Hank Williams staple, Oh Lonesome Me.

All these songs are short, which, I confess, is part of the attraction, rarely drawing the agony out beyond the two and a half/three-minute mark. Rather than invoke each and all: there is only so much you can say about these precision tooled paeans, all strictly adhering to the template of the day, and so, essentially, all saying much the same, in much the same way. The differences are more in the levels of grief the individual singers can imbue and how ludicrously the lyric stand up to the present day. I have to draw attention to the Carlisle Brothers’ Tramp In The Street, much covered, including by Hank Williams, which, rather than describing an invigorating walk through town, describes the pitiful soul encountered there. Of course, he is lying, dying, at the rich man’s gate, begging for crumbs, “some mother’s darling, some mother’s son”. Harmonica and accordion vie with dobro to break your heart, not least as you know just know how unlikely it is the rich man is going to intervene, even as the brothers remind us all about Jesus, lo and behold, drawing the comparison between our Lord and the tramp on the street. That’ll learn the rich man! And, clearly, make us all think, should the same happen outside our doors.

Hank Snow features three times, the best being the joyful ditty of Latter Edged in Black, set to a cheery tune, the story of the letter sent to the errant son, informing of his mother’s death, which betters even his duet with Anita Carter, I Will Never Marry. (Can you guess why?) Of Patsy Cline’s two contributions, her wise and passive/aggressive vitriolic warning to her cheating lover , The Heart You Break May Be Your Own, edges out the more sober A Church, A Courtroom And Then Goodbye, that being about Tammy Wynette’s most celebrated subject matter.

Other highlights include the magnificently named Skeets MacDonalds’s My Room Is Crowded, the second line obvious and duly delivered, and This World Can’t Stand Long, by the aforementioned Wilma and Stoney, with beautifully unreconstructed street corner Baptist voices, and one of those honky tonk piano solos that make me beam, if possibly not enough for Jesus to show interest. I have to give a mention to one of Kitty Well’s songs featured, We Buried Her Beneath The Willows, another cracker that opens with the sounds of the chapel, an organ readily whistling in the intro. Who dies, you ask? Go listen. More of the same is invoked by, great title, There’s A Little Box Of Pine On The 729, another chance for Hank Snow to wet your cheeks. One way or another.

Perhaps the best-known song, Oh Lonesome Me apart, is Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music), not, I confess, a song I necessarily would normally include here, not least from familiarity with versions by the Burritos/Gram and Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen. I mean, it is mere entry-level depressing, par for the genre’s course. But the version here, by Joe Maphis and Rose Lee, is carried in an unfamiliar key that wrenches a little more grief than those rockier renditions ever did.

All in all, this is a treat. I accept it may not be for all. Or you may feel it isn’t for you, in which case, surprise yourself. A primer in what country, yes, and western, does best, it is one to pop onto the turntable/in the machine and impress your friend and family. Then, too, your room will be, apropos ol’ Skeets, be crowded too. I love it.

Hurry up and let my boy go free“: Hank Snow channels a grieving mother on the 729.

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