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Gary Younge

Garth Brooks
Ride the high country

My mum liked Jim Reeves. Looking back on it, that is probably where it all began. The folksy smile, rancher's neckerchief and plaid shirts on a big fella standing next to a large horse on the record cover was all I needed to know about country music. If the point of the picture was to attract the sort of people who wanted to hear his music, then his music was never going to attract me. Before I could even spell "genuine" I had Jim, and anyone who sounded or looked like him, down for a phoney.

He combined the gritty realism of the Waltons and the sophistication of a storyline from the Dukes of Hazzard all rolled into one, sliced up into several narratives, flattened into vinyl and spun at 78 on our record player. Whenever Reeves, Johnny Cash or Kenny Rogers (there seemed no end to my mother's insensitivity) were playing, it felt as though Bo, Luke and Daisy were racing around Stevenage's many roundabouts in the General Lee. Good ol' boys, hollerin' hard and doin' good in the name of southern honour with only the confederate flag between them and the Almighty. The Dukes of Hertfordshire. It was never going to catch on, at least not for us anyway. The mixture of plodding rhythm and sing-a-long lyrics reminded me more of nursery rhymes than anything else. Unlike Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone (country was an aberration in my mother's otherwise impressive collection), you could not dance to it.

But it went beyond music. For the youngest of three boys in a single-parent household it was too butch; for young black Britons seeking cultural affirmation and confirmation it was too white; for teenagers surrounded by ska and the remnants of punk it was too wholesome. And then again, maybe there is also the possibility that all of that is nonsense, and I just didn't like it for the same reasons I'm none too keen on black pudding and Jaffa Cakes - because it didn't suit my tastes.

Either way, my relationship with country and western music - as much as there was one - was not so much antagonistic as alienated. I could not identify with it enough to have a strong feeling about it one way or another. This sentiment, it appears, is not simply a product of my prejudice.

When I put out an appeal through Radio 2's country music website for country buffs to help educate me, Fiona Tomamy wrote back: "First thing you must do is get beyond the appalling image that country music has in the UK. Then stop looking for CDs in the likes of Woolworths and deal with a mail order specialist. Then you're ready to discover a wealth of music as diverse as you can get." Country is indeed fluid in definition and contradictory in nature. Like socialism, Christianity or freedom of speech, it means different things to different people and even different things to the same person in the course of one conversation. "Country really means music from outside of the cities," says Billy Bragg. "Music that people made rather than people bought. You hear something on the radio, and sit on the back porch and play it, and make up lyrics to fit your own situation."

That "situation", when it comes to country, is invariably deeply racially connoted. A former DJ for a bluegrass show in Kentucky says it is "basically white trash music"; an aficionado from London's Barbican emphasises its close relationship to the blues. Both have a point. "Country and blues are racial terms," says Bragg. "They're code words for black and white rural music." As such, their similarities and differences seem to reflect the paradox and inequality of racial life in the south; the close proximity in which black and white people lived running counter to the strict segregation they lived under.

"Sometimes the best way to find out whether a song is country or not is to play it to someone who knows nothing about it and see what they say," says Sue Keogh, who hosts the BBC's country website. So here I am, with my alphabetised CD rack suddenly in utter confusion: Garth Brooks joining the Buena Vista Social Club and Hank Williams sidling up to Dionne Warwick. The quickest way to blow your cover as a novice on this subject, it rapidly becomes apparent, is to talk about country and western. Country and western is to country what a shilling is to five pence and Ceylon is to Sri Lanka. "It's not a term that has really been used since the 1950s," says Richard Wootton, Britain's leading publicist in country music.

The development was not just semantic. What started, crudely speaking, as a migratory triangle linking the south, the Appalachians and the pioneering west lost one of its nodes. "The 'western' was dropped when the scene said goodbye to the singing cowboys," says Wootton. The geographical centre of gravity for country moved east and south, and ended up in Nashville, home to America's largest religious bookshop and dirty bookshop, and not just a geographical fact but a signifier. Nashville means the country music establishment - where the deals are done, the money is made and the awards are given. Country may have started as "music people made" but it ended up as "music people made money out of".

All roads in country music seem, at some stage, to lead to Nashville. Country artists can get around, past, through or stuck in Nashville, but the one thing they cannot do is ignore it. The Country Music Awards are taking place in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville this week; the current festival at the Barbican is called Beyond Nashville. The title seems to reflect a commonly held, but by no means unanimous view that the country music establishment is due for a shake-up. Not exactly a revolution, but a hugely accelerated stage of evolution. "From an industry standpoint, I couldn't tell you what's going to happen, but from a musical standpoint, people are looking for something more organic and gritty," says artist Robert Earl Keen.

Country music already sprawls over the established music categories, sharing borders with folk and rock but encroaching into what might have been considered the hostile territory of pop and blues. Jimmy Rodgers' Looking for a New Mama could be a track by any blues artist: "When I get a woman I want her all to myself/ When I get my mama I want her all to myself/ There'll be no outside lovin'/ She'll have to keep it on the shelf." Until, that is, he starts yodelling in between verses and sends you running for Boss Hogg. Carl Perkins' Put Your Cat Clothes On on any other CD than Beyond Nashville would be classed as rock'n'roll.

Meanwhile it continually spawns offshoots from within - bluegrass, alternative country, Tex-Mex and Americana - that all share their roots with country but are spinning off in such different directions that they will soon have little in common with each other. Los Super Seven, with a heavily Hispanic-influenced sound, have little in common with cheesy boy-band Lone Star, any more than straight-talking George Jones has with the mood tunes of Howe and less still with Leanne Rimes. Like any movement worth its salt, country comes complete with an establishment, culture, sub-culture, heretics, loyalists and dissidents. While this amorphous state generally opens the door to fuzzy thinking and misinterpretation, it indicates something dynamic rather than static. Shame then that most people's understanding of country, including my own until recently, is so stuck in such a caricature.

Wootton says this is a particular problem for those outside the US, as an affinity for country demands a cultural leap of faith. "It wasn't really made for England because we don't have men who cry in their beer or women with big hair," he says. But then he's probably never been to Stevenage. For while the style and even sound might be exceptional to the Americas, the narratives and lyrics are rooted in universal emotions, like love, abandonment, infidelity or depression, and informed by working-class experiences like unemployment, migration and addiction.

Translate the following country song titles - She Thinks His Name Was John, One Night Stand, Pissed Off 2am, Ted's So Wasted, The Bottle Let Me Down - into any language and there is not a continent where poor people could not make up their own lyrics.

When Woody Guthrie sings: "My brothers and sisters are stranded on this road/ Stranded on this road that a million feet have trod/ Rich man took my home and drove me from my door/ And I ain't got no home in this world anymore", he could be expressing the life of any itinerant labourer from Brazil to Bangladesh.

But while this is very interesting sociologically, it all makes for pretty miserable listening. The world of country music is institutionally dysfunctional; not a banjo can be strummed nor a harmonica hummed before disaster is assured. Nothing, in short, goes right for anyone. Worse still, it is not supposed to. Women leave, men cheat, trucks don't start and the good people always end up dead. For those who need to know that there will always be someone having a worse time than them this is comforting. But for those of us who just might want to be cheered up, country has relatively little to offer. Gillian Welch's Orphan Girl provides an extreme but salient example. With a chorus line of: "I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother, I am an orphan girl", you are all set to finish it all when Welch's waif beats you to it. "When He calls me, I will be able/ to meet my family, at God's table/ I'll meet my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, no more an orphan girl." Play that on a Saturday evening and see if you feel like going out when it's over.

At other times, however, a lyric or storyline will encapsulate a condition, feeling or experience that strikes you as unique not in its sophistication, but in its simplicity in addressing some cruel banality of white working-class culture that is often as alienated from popular discourse as I was from country music."She came down to the grocery story/ She said, 'I want to buy a carton of milk but I don't have any money'," sings Martina McBride in Love's the Only House. "I said, hey I'll cover you honey. Because the pain's got to go somewhere."

Which brings us back to Jim Reeves, Aretha Franklin and black pudding. Because, while I held Reeves in disdain, I also held him in my head. I could remember the lyrics of songs like Boy Named Sue because they were part of a logical, if not a particularly meaningful story. That ballad tradition is, for me, the most attractive aspect of country music. The trouble is the ballads bring their own problem. Since I can't dance to them - ceilidhs aside - all I can do is sing along to them, and the storylines are often so depressing that once I've stopped to think what I'm singing to I'm doomed.

Unlike Respect or Walk On By, there is little resistance in the lyrics beyond getting by, suffering, struggling and failing. I don't mind that once in a while - my favourite song ever is Midnight Train to Georgia - but not every other track.

It was several days of country immersion before I realised that the words to my favourite track from O Brother Where Art Thou were: "I'm a man of constant sorrow/ I've seen trouble all my days. For six long years/ I've been in trouble/ No pleasure here on earth I've found/ For in this world I'm bound to ramble/ I have no friends to help me now." Like black pudding, once I found out what was in it, it wasn't really to my taste anymore.

¿ The Beyond Nashville festival is at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), until November 12. The Country Music Awards are on BBC2 on November 17.

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