The Louvin Brothers | Tragic Songs of Life (1956)
Country – 35:55
The great American comedian Bob Newhart once said: “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.” To be honest, I think he was being over-generous; it assumes far too much intelligence on behalf of Country and Western fans.
What is it about country music that grates on me? It is perhaps the most American of music; but it is also one that conjures up an image of toothless rednecks swigging moonshine in some dirty Deep South backwater. I’ve seen Deliverance; I know what they do to pretty boys like me in that part of the world. I know the genre is huge and, yes, I am more than well aware that it has even influenced some of my own musical idols (one of Bob Dylan’s best albums is his country-heavy – and, noteably, occasionally maligned – Nashville Skyline; it has been sadly neglected in this list of 1,001 records). But even so, there is something about the sound which sets my teeth on edge. I’m not talking about those artists who have tried to crossover into the mainstream – a cynical attempt to pander to the pop chart (for whom I have even less respect; at least stay true to your roots, people!). I’m thinking of those real country singers who sound like they are strangling a cat when they sing. Seriously, who sings like that? A few ‘yee-hahs!’ and shots fired into the air, and the stereotypical image would be complete. So will a listen to one of the early works of this goliath of American music change my mind? Well, not really.
The Louvin Brothers are highly regarded in the genre of country; older brother Ira was certainly living the life he sang about (an alcoholic who had been married four times – including a third wife who shot him – he died in a car crash while wanted by the police for a DUI charge), even if his younger sibling, Charlie, was much more sedate. If what they say is true, that you really do have to live country and not just sing it, Ira was out to prove it. But for all of his pain, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Ok, maybe I’m being overly harsh. The purpose of this was to come to these albums fresh and unprejudiced; to open myself to new experiences. And, trust me, I do want to like it. I want to be able to say that my musical taste is eclectic without turning my nose up at those genres I used to ignore. To be able to throw in the occasional ‘of course, the original is so much better’ never looks bad either.
But I can’t. At least, not with this album. Things start off relatively well – opener Kansas has a certain charming twang to its guitar and there is a sense that this could go well. There is a definite bluegrass tone to many of the songs on this album, and, for me, that gives it the potential to please. Even the singing doesn’t have me cringing inside, wanting to turn it down before too many people wandering past my door overhear the sounds of country escaping through the gaps in the window. There is a sense this is more folksy; more akin to Woody Guthrie than a precursor to Billy Rae Cyrus. But it is a false sense of security. Things turn sour pretty darn quickly and, frankly, talking about individual tracks becomes impossible as the songs all seem to merge into one. Not in a good ‘every one is a classic’ way. No, this is more the fact that they all have the same droning sound to them. Even the brothers’ rendition of In The Pines (which many in my generation came to through Nirvana’s cover of the same song – this time entitled Where Did You Sleep Last Night – on their Live in New York album; possibly one of the best songs on that particular album) doesn’t get the juices flowing when performed by the Louvin boys.
In fairness, the voices of the two brothers do possess a sense of loss and pain. But alongside that is the sound of whinging. Yes, to my ear, it sounds like nothing more than a couple of people whining to a woeful guitar soundtrack. There is no real feeling that I want to know more about their lost loves and broken lives. Instead, I wish they would find somebody else to unload their troubles to. Believe me, it isn’t the subject matter which puts me off; as a teenager, I was more than happy to listen to the drone of the Madchester scene, that post-Goth sensibility of Robert Smith wannabes who help you insist that the older generation just ‘don’t get being young’. Hell, I’m sure I even uttered the phrase ‘you don’t know what it’s like’ to my poor parents at one stage. But I don’t think there was quite the same overall dreariness to the music. At least there was some sort of melody, rather than this awful sound.
Would I listen to Tragic Songs Of Life again? Not if I can help it – it did nothing for me. But am I glad that I’ve taken the time to check out something which I would never have thought about playing before? To be perfectly honest – no. If the book had been called 1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and this album had fallen by the wayside, I’m pretty sure my life would have been no less fulfilled. I’m still certain there are country albums out there which may change my mind and I hope there is at least one on this list. But this isn’t the one. And for those people who like country music, that means I think it’s bad.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: The Wildest! by Louis Prima