What’s Making Me Happy: Discovering Classic Country

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature at least for the at least next few weeks.

This week: Atlanta Burned Again Last Night

I’ve written here before about my love for country music, and particularly for country that that these days might be termed classic. My personal inflection point was 2003, at which point my listening to mainstream country radio largely fell away though I still tune in sometimes while I’m driving to see if I can catch older songs. One of the local country stations rewards this gamble more often than not, playing a variety of songs that skew older and with multiple shows per week dedicated to classic country. My favorite part of these shows is getting, occasionally, to stumble across a song I’ve not heard before.

Exactly that happened this week. From 1983, I give you “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” by Atlanta:

In some ways it is a pretty typical catchy country song waxing lyrical about a romantic engagement now gone. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Wikipedia in describing “a teenaged boy’s sexual initiation by a married woman” as a “common theme in country music,” though there are certainly broad similarities to a song like Garth Brooks’ “That Summer.” However, the lyrics here are both more explicit and more pointed about the impropriety of this particular adultery with both parties seeing other people and him not yet 18:

She was over thirty
He was barely seventeen
She was in her second marriage
He dated a high school queen.

These lyrics alone would be enough to make me happy, but what makes it art is the confluence of this subject with the song’s title making reference to and co-opting Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta in 1864.

Atlanta burned again last night
And all the water in the ocean
couldn’t put out the fire this time
They gave in to sin again, but lord it felt so right
When Atlanta burned again last night

The absurdity of the entire package is why I can’t stop laughing.

What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

What is making me happy: Cowboy Mouth

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

My big failing in the trivia night I usually go to is that I have gaping blind spots when it comes to music. I’ve always said I like what I like and don’t usually go out looking for new stuff. However, I have recently started listening to Spotify’s “discover weekly” and then listening to full albums from the artists whose songs I liked. Yesterday I came across the group Cowboy Mouth, a New Orleans rock group whose driving sound and bombastic lyrics I am quite enjoying. I don’t agree with the lyrics in every song, but neither do I find them objectionable the way I do in some songs commonly on the radio.

There weren’t many high quality videos I could find, but this is one of the more popular songs, “Jenny Says”:

And then there is the ever-subtle “Do You Want To Do It Right Now”: