I don’t know much about music, even though it’s been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. As a kid I sat alongside our old console radio and listened with equal fascination to Grand Ole Opry and the Telephone Hour. It was a long time before I sorted out the difference between the passages from Les Préludes by Liszt and the more famous Overture to William Tell by Rossini, both occurring in every episode of The Lone Ranger. Without that music, I suspect that my favorite radio program would have been just another program.
I lived within range of WCKY, from Covington, Kentucky, one of the most widely heard radio stations in the country during the heyday of Clear Channel stations. They played a lot of different music during the day, but at night, when their signal reached over half the continent, it was all what we called “Hillbilly music.” In my snobbish teen years, I came to avoid such music, preferring either classical or swing, but it was hard to avoid Country music in the Midwest. Only after World War Two, when FM radio bloomed, did there seem to be an alternative.
When I began to travel a bit, I found that Out West, country music was called “western music.” If there was a difference, it might have been due to the nasal twang of Appalachian voices and the more Southern accents of the Rockies. Seemed to me to be the same music, the same limited chord choices, the same relaxed diction (the word ain’t was ubiquitous either way).
Country music for the most part came from the Scot-Irish settlers of the Appalachian Mountains, carried over from their ancestors back in the Old World. There was a lot of reference to broken relationships and personal suffering. Western music was “cowboy music,” which emphasized the often lonely life on the range.
A decade later, the world was changing again, and suddenly a new/old musical genre came to my attention—Folk Music. It was like my old favorites by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, but with a pedigree that came from way earlier than Nashville. I couldn’t tell much difference, but then, as I said, I don’t know much about music, so the musical differences seemed to me to be slight. The political differences, however, were plain. Folk was about the struggles of ordinary people with the environment or with the establishment; Country was about the struggles of plain people with their more personal situations—love and drink, mostly. Not that I analyzed all that at the time.
Kim Ruehl, in About.com/folk music, wrote, “Country music evolved out of the folk music tradition, and continues to influence it in hindsight. However, much of contemporary country is far more relatable to pop music than to folk. The difference is the involvement of big business in the development of country stars' careers. While folk artists occasionally find their way into the mainstream music industry machine, for the most part folk music is a sub-corporate genre more concerned with community involvement and speaking for the people than in record sales and image consultants.”
I hadn’t given all this much thought until the recent release of the movie Inside Llewin Davis, which was about the beginnings of the renaissance of folk music in Greenwich Village just prior to Bob Dylan. It inspired a lot of conversation among people I associate with, although some of us found the movie itself disappointing. It occurred to me that our interest in it might have something to do with our ages—the folk revival of the Sixties occurring at important phases in our lives. Musically, the movie sparked interest in the style because of the attention given to “authentic” folk, leading to a concert in New York.
Folk/country/western is a far cry from Ravel and Rachmaninov, but I can get lost in either. I can tell the difference between Sibelius and Brahms, and between Johnny Cash and Gene Autry, but for me, music fills a large place in my soul. There’s room for it all.