Country Music's Adventurous Streak

Despite its reputation for traditionalism, the genre has long welcomed outside influences—a fact that's as true today as it was in the period covered by Country Funk 1967-1974.
The cover art for the new album, Country Funk 1967-1974 (Light in the Attic Records)

The compilation Country Funk Vol. 2, which collects songs by country singers that show the influence of funk between 1967 and 1974, is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows the skewed interests of the music press. Second, and not unrelatedly, it shows that country music has always been more progressive in sound than it is often given credit for.

Country Funk received positive coverage from the likes of Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Blurt, and Mother Jones; the first installment also earned mention in the Village Voice and the Boston Globe. There’s nothing wrong with this—Country Funk is an artfully compiled mixtape from the label Light in the Attic, which has a good reputation for finding things that everyone missed the first time around. Zach Cowie, one of the men behind the release, is a record collector with remarkable range. In 2013, he ran the blog playitasitlathes, which posted a song a day from all over the musical spectrum. It was only a year-long project, but it showed how nourishing eclecticism could be.

Still, there's something strange about the attention paid to this mixtape of songs more than 40 years old. Contemporary country is plenty vibrant right now. In the first half of this year, you can find the tragic songs of John Fullbright and Kelsey Waldon, the slick longing of David Nail, the heavy guitar attack of Brantley Gilbert, and the rapping of Big Smo. These artists make interesting, sometimes boundary-pushing music, but, except for Fullbright, they have gone unmentioned by many of the publications covering Country Funk.  

Part of the reason for its media popularity is that the compilation features recognizable, respected names performing in or shortly after their heydays. But ironically, Country Funk actually has more in common with contemporary country than it does with new critically beloved musicians like Sturgill Simpson, who, while talented, gets mainstream coverage in part for staying faithful to the ‘70s.

Today’s stars often try to cross over to a larger audience by mingling with pop (Taylor Swift, Keith Urban), rock (Eric Church), rap (Florida Georgia Line), and R&B (Lady Antebellum). Country Funk shows similarly famous singers of decades past doing much the same. You can hear country music institutions Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, Byrds co-founder Gene Clark, and easy-listening king J.J. Cale taking note of the scratchy guitars and snappy break beats exploding through pop culture at the time. The compilation also includes covers of artists outside country—Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Band.

The truth is that country has always interacted with genres outside itself. In a recent interview, the artist Bobby Bare Jr., whose father was a famous singer and songwriter in Nashville in the ‘60s and ‘70s, noted that “Contemporary country is just doing the exact same thing that Patsy Cline did in the ‘50s and ‘60s … trying to cross over to pop.” The country radio personality Gerry House made a similar connection in his recently published book, Country Music Broke My Brain. “I’ve heard all my career about the good ol’ country music songs that no longer exist today,” he writes. “In fact, the Patsy Clines, et al., were actually … pop radio stars who happened to be in Nashville. … Nobody thought of them as ‘country.’”

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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