Brilliant Corners #16: The Gal Who Invented Kissin'

Country is a music of diverse pleasures: the bel canto balladry of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, the psychologically acute portraiture of Tom T. Hall, the politically rousing storytelling of Loretta Lynn, the self-deprecating mythmaking of Billy Joe Shaver, the bone-chilling spirituality of Ralph Stanley. It's also full of contradictions: Maligned by some as hackneyed and simplistic, its lyrics can attain a sophistication rarely encountered in other music. Dismissed for reactionary politics, it has consistently offered up fierce critiques of inequality, bigotry, and injustice (see Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears below). And if during certain periods the country charts seem swamped with work of almost unimaginable ickiness and bathos, there are usually flashes of musical sublimity glimmering through.

For years, a certain kind of listener has turned up their nose at country's directness, regionalism, and twang, as though ears that delight in Dame Janet Baker singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder cannot possibly enjoy the Louvin Brothers' equally wrenching rendition of "When I Stop Dreaming." This, of course, betrays nothing but a lack of imagination.

This magazine hasn't been exempt from this strain of snobbery. Reader mail about a previous column on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard suggested that it had reached an underserved segment of our readership, and what follows is a list of a dozen favorite country records that number among the most delightful, moving, and ass-shaking in all of American (and Canadian) music.

This little list isn't intended to be a "greatest" anything, only a collection of personal favorites—ranking musical art makes about as much sense as ranking lovers. Also, I haven't made a good-faith effort to represent the last decade. Though it's an unpopular opinion to air publicly, not every age is equal in yielding cultural treasures, or as my friend Dave, a classics professor turned cocktail writer, says, "almost 200 years passed between Chaucer and Shakespeare." Finally, many of these records happen to sound fantastic, suitable for your most exotic cartridge, thickest cables, and largest cognac snifter.

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt: Trio, Warner Bros., 1987

One of the oddest and loveliest things that happens in country music is the way voices sometimes blend to create something new, which exists apart from the individual singers. "The sound that we made together surprised and astonished the three of us," Harris reported after singing with Parton and Ronstadt for the first time at her home in Los Angeles in 1975. The record they completed 12 years later astonished everyone else, too, from diehard country fans to suburban MOR (Middle of the Road) listeners to indie-rock kids discovering old-timey music. A mix of traditional standards like "Rosewood Casket" and "Farther Along," songs by contemporaries like Kate McGarrigle and Linda Thompson, Parton originals like "The Pain of Loving You," and Jimmie Rodgers's 1932 chestnut "Hobo's Meditation," the material is bound together by the unearthly sound of the three singers: Ronstadt's outsize soprano, Harris's delicate, amber-colored instrument, and Parton's inimitable vibrato, reminiscent of a leaf trembling in the breeze. George Massenburg's elegant production and a band featuring Ry Cooder completed one of country's most ravishing records. If you can listen to Parton singing "Wildflowers" without getting choked up, you may be beyond the reach of music.

The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs Of Life, Capitol, 1956

The summits of close harmony—also known by the creepier name "blood harmony"—have often been scaled by siblings: Who knows the crannies of your voice better than someone you've been singing with since toddlerhood? And among country's great blood-harmony singing groups, none can match the Louvins at their prime. Charlie's reassuring baritone and Ira's piercing, sky-high tenor worked together like circus aerialists, one catching the other at just the right moment. Like many great singers, Ira was torn between the pull of the church and the more tangible blandishments of Satan, and his life often resembled a soap opera of blackout drinking binges and firearm-grade marital disputes that derailed the group too soon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, happy songs didn't come naturally to the brothers from Henagar, Alabama. Their first long-player, their finest, is a collection of 12 shiver-inducing tales that seem to emerge from the timeless antiquity of ghost stories. You may have heard Kurt Cobain's aptly unsettling cover of "In the Pines"—a song that hints at some unspeakable desolation without quite naming it. Ira's keening howl on the original is incomparably scarier.

Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, Columbia, 1964

"General George A. Custer/Oh, his yellow hair had luster/But the general don't ride well anymore," sang Johnny Cash on one of the strangest and most moving entries in his discography. An early example of what would come to be known as a concept album, Bitter Tears is a collection of protest songs about the mistreatment and betrayal of Native Americans by the country's white settlers, including five by folk singer Peter LaFarge. Cash recorded it after years of immersing himself in the tragic stories of the Pima and the Cherokee, and it pulls no punches. "By the time I actually recorded the album," Cash recalled, "I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage." On tracks like "Apache Tears" and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," he lays out episodes from this unsavory history, and on the rousing "Custer," he gleefully jeers and mocks the loser of the Battle of Little Bighorn. Spooked, Columbia didn't promote the album and most radio stations refused to play it. Cash wasn't about to back down: he took out an ad in Billboard that read, in part, "DJs, station managers, owners, etc., where are your guts?" and traveled around the country handing out the record until it nearly topped the charts. Recognized as a landmark today, Bitter Tears has spawned a tribute album and documentary, both of which are worth your time.

Maddox Brothers And Rose: America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band: Their Original Recordings 1946-1951, Volumes 1 and 2, Arhoolie, 1993–95

I don't know exactly how much credit Rose Maddox and her brothers deserve for inventing rock'n'roll, but I'm certain it's more than they've gotten. Natives of Boaz, Alabama, who rode the freights to work in the migrant camps of California's San Joaquin Valley, they became the hottest country act on the West Coast. With their slap-bass boogies, propane-torch electric guitar lines, and Rose's hollering, blow-down-the-doors vocals, they absolutely tore up Bakersfield's blood-bucket honkytonks. These two discs capture their rawest, wildest sides, cut for the 4-Star label in the years immediately following World War II. As these songs make clear, Rose sure wasn't angling to be a cowboy's sweetheart: Just listen to her belting "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" and shouting "Hooray for alimony!" over her clan's hooting and cackling. All this wildness doesn't foreclose consistency—among the nearly 60 tracks there's not a single dud.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will The Circle Be Unbroken, 1972

Longhairs from Long Beach, California, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started off in the late 1960s as something like a jug band novelty act, scoring a solitary hit with a cover of "Mr. Bojangles" and owning the dubious honor of being the first to record the songs of Kenny Loggins. But in 1971, in a new guise as a straight-ahead country and bluegrass group, they traveled to Nashville to record with a stellar lineup of older musicians whose commercial significance had waned but who remained in fine form, including Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and Vassar Clements. The resulting three-LP set captured the extended jam session built around sublime renditions of older music: there's Travis's haunting singing and playing on "Dark as a Dungeon" and Mother Maybelle lending her autoharp and beautifully faded voice to the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower," a number that many aspiring country guitarists learn to play first. The sessions were mixed direct to 30ips two-track tape, which lends the resulting three-LP set both the live feeling of a concert and stunning sound. A time machine that brings together three generations of musicians, Will the Circle Be Unbroken has introduced listeners to country, bluegrass, and folk music for the past half-century and has lost none of its vivid, joyful punch.

Hank Snow the Singing Ranger and His Rainbow Ranch Boys: Country Classics, RCA, 1956

Many remember Hank Snow as a diminutive, toupéed elder squeezed into a succession of Nudie suits, lampooned by actor Henry Gibson in Robert Altman's Nashville. They need to dig deeper, back to 1950. That's when the 36-year-old Snow—having run away at 12 from an abusive stepfather in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, to become a merchant marine—arrived at the Grand Ole Opry. RCA had already released "The Golden Rocket" on both 78rpm shellac and 45rpm vinyl. With their slashing tempos, Latin syncopation, and proto-rockabilly feel, the remarkable series of hits that followed foreshadowed the coming of rock'n'roll. Lyrically, the records are as inventive and genuinely mad as any in country music—who can forget Madam Lozonga teaching La Conga from "The Rhumba Boogie," or the "The Gal Who Invented Kissin'": "On every kind of hug and kiss," Snow informs us, "she holds the copyright." Not to be missed in this garden of musical delights is Snow's ebullient, tasteful, and downright juicy guitar playing. This LP collects the best of the early singles; they can also be found on BMG's excellent 1997 CD, The Essential Hank Snow.


Dennis in NJ's picture

A great read, thought provoking, on this great day.....

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

Have loved the Louvin's for years and knew about the Cash (not the backstory though) but need to dive into the others. This is why we love Stereophile! To enjoy all this music - to hear and feel and understand it better via the equipment - whatever its cost or audio engineering design principles. PS - the Louvin reissued LPs from 15 years ago are amazing.

CG's picture

Thank you for this article. I will investigate.

My wife has always said that some of her favorite music of all time is rooted in the Appalachians. I get the appeal.

I notice that none of these recordings are very recent. I think my own lack of appreciation for country music is because of what I hear when tuning into a modern country music radio station. I can't listen for more than about 17 seconds. Very few stations seem to ever play these somewhat older and more classic songs. I'll try to see what missed.

glibby's picture

Thank you for this beautifully written article. I look forward to listening to these records, most of which I wasn't familiar with. I always love reading Brilliant Corners every month!