For the release of the first issue of the Quarterly Review of Contemporary Country, the editor reflects on the major theme of the first quarter of 2016: ghosts. To download the issue in full, visit HERE.
They’re in the title of Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20 and in Megan & Liz’ “That Ghost.” They’re present in the buried harmonies that abortively open Gene Watson’s Real. Country. Music. and in the obsession with legacy that drives Hank Williams Jr’s It’s About Time into a wall. That Malcolm Holcombe’s haunted seems a given, but the same could be said of Dianna Corcoran, The Cactus Blossoms, Buddy Miller, and so many others. Bubbling, hacking bronchial fluids might be the killer, but there’s plenty of the dead to go around; they might even end up with a residency on a cruise ship, happy just to see their friends play.
But then, the ghosts that haunt country music through the first quarter of 2016 aren’t lost souls or revenants with unfinished business. There’s no rattling china, no shouting from behind a crucifix to be had. Well, not at the ghosts at least. There’s some of that shouting, but that’s mostly at the living.
This quarter, at least, the ghosts aren’t people: they’re places. Lucinda Williams’ title is almost a pun; the “of” is polyvocal. It could refer to the individuals that haunt the locale, or to the various permutations that the space exhibits, as ghosts. Taking songs like Williams’ cover of “Factory” into account, the latter seems much more likely. The I-20 that runs from Texas to South Carolina through Louisiana wasn’t likely on The Boss’ mind when he wrote about factories, if for no other reason than that the imagination of the US is very split. The North is the land of factories, the South of plantations — with some real reasons. Even the postbellum “New South” initiative ultimately only employed 5% of the southern labor force. If the factory is a poltergeist, it’s an outlier, the kind of death that doesn’t make a cultural impact. If it’s an expression of the space, though, it’s a speaking through history in its absences and apocrypha.
If Lucinda Williams does it best, then Dianna Corcoran’s In America is the most exemplary; Corcoran’s Australian, but the small towns and country roads she sings about are all sheen with nothing but rot underneath. It’s the David Lynch school of appreciation, where suburbs and bugs are ineffably tied and that is source of a strange celebration, a pinwheeling sense of disgust and delight. But there’s also the ghost of Occupy on The Dead Tongues’ Montana, of the Bush-era on Sean Watkins’ What to Fear, of the long 70s on Shooter Jennings’ Countach (For Giorgio). There is even a moment on Julie Rhodes’ Born to Meet the Devil that unintentionally evokes Kenneth Harding Jr.’s murder by San Francisco police, and the many others like him.
There are plenty of things country — and the many related genres covered herein, including alt, bluegrass, folk, comedy, americana, and gospel-influence — can be good at. Chief among them, in this batch at least, is what I refer to as storytelling throughout the reviews; the way songs can offer unique perspectives, characters, and situations, and how their telling can be both musical and meaningful in a more conventional sense. Every song offers a whole experience, a life lived in part or full, a world built in bars or homes and discarded after three minutes thirty. It’s easy, in country, to lose the forest for the trees.
It isn’t that the forest is full of ghosts. It’s that the forest is a ghost itself. This quarter, country speaks in jagged fragments, telling stories over itself of the things it has seen, the way it became conscious, the roads inside of it that stretch outwards. The polyvocal ghosts of country.