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Blessed be the funky. And the unfunky, they too shall be blessed. Just less funky.
This thing was constructed on March 31, 2009, and it was categorized as Country.
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I learned long ago that when a song arrives, let it come, don’t worry about style (unless you are working to a tight brief, which is a subject for another post), and don’t load the song with your preconceptions about what you should or shouldn’t be writing. Every so often, without making any conscious attempt, a country song escapes from me, and after some years, I realised that I did have a country alter-ego, whom I dubbed Country Cliff. Cliff (and his band, The Cans) helps me to maintain a sense of balance in this evil, perverted world. He allows me to don a wide-brimmed hat, and use the words prairie and sundown. He’s not unpleasant, but he is dangerous, and he has to be, because survival is tough when you’re one cowboy’s drunken bullet away from death.

There is an inevitability about teenage rebellion which normally means that if they don’t follow along like clones, sons in particular strike out in the opposite direction to their fathers. Thinking about it now, the music I chose to turn up loud in the family home once puberty was well-established – Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and a slew of loud new wave, reggae and ska acts – must have sounded like the distortions from hell to my 1950s music-loving popski.

Marty Robbins Gunfighter BalladsViewing my dad’s glittering pantheon of musical stars from my protective teenage bunker, Elvis Presley I didn’t really understand at all, associating him with the middle-aged, gaudy, fat Las Vegas crooner and endlessly tedious Saturday afternoon films, rather than the lean mean hip-swiveling sexuality that got him banned below the waist. I could take him or leave him. Lonnie Donnegan’s Jack of Diamonds high-speed skiffle was fun if you were five years old. But, my dad’s country music caused my head to hurt and my ears to complain, and I would state bitterly that I was bound to fail my exams if he insisted on giving his music an airing of a Sunday evening. The pathos was completely lost on my hormone-addled teenage mind, and all I could hear was wailing, depression, tragedy, and twanging guitars.

How wonderful and how strange therefore, to find myself in later years not only appreciating country music, but realising that certain elements of country were deeply embedded in my own songs.

Harmony singing is something I have always done, and I became aware of the harmonic differences between the white folk tradition and the black blues tradition early on; also, the rhythmic differences were clear to me. I clearly recall being ten years old and explaining syncopation to a music class, being mildly astonished that some of them couldn’t hear the difference between the on and the off beat. Later, I joined the school folk club, which meant we could remain in the music room and learn songs like Frankie and Johnny. Nobody taught us the harmonies for these songs, we just knew them. It is this miraculous fusion between black and white, blues, gospel and folk which gave us most of the popular music we currently enjoy.

I am just a country boy from Croydon, kicking at the chickens in the yard…

I would sometimes launch into this country music parody at art school, but it was there that I returned wholeheartedly to the music which I had once suffered, and on a visit home, asked my dad if I could borrow his copy of Marty Robbins’ El Paso to copy onto cassette tape. Country music had snuck inside me, and there I was, recalling every word, rejoicing in the narratives, the pain, the blood, and the joyous, lilting, latin-tinged melodies.

It’s more than a nod to my heritage, this love affair with country. It’s the rawest expression of living dirt poor that white music has yet produced, and while my own background wasn’t deprived, we were just two generations on from being in servitude to the wealthy and this knowledge was burned into us. Plus, being poor is no determinant of suffering, as many a rich suicide will tell you.

I don’t try to write traditional country music, and so I imagine that purists won’t like it too much. I just try to call it as I see it, and write about my own experiences, as always.

This song, Walking on Water, is an oblique narrative about wanting someone but not liking them, experiencing mixed feelings of desire and repulsion, moving from the early stages of delight in a romance to the later stages of betrayal and loss. Perfect country material.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 31 March, 2009 at 11:06 | Permalink

    I remember many boyhood nights spent watching the stars from a dock on Lake Thomas, listening to Wolfman Jack saturate the airways from down across the Rio Grande with songs like El Paso and Apache. Music had so much strange promise and lurid possibilty in those undefined days.

    Feleena surely would whirl.

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