On Genre and Space Cowboys

Prologue: Genre Sucks

Genre is pretty stupid thing if you think about it.  Trying to categorize music (or any art for that matter) into a neat little box is often an exercise in futility.  I think a lot of critics and fans alike miss the point when they try to put singers or bands into one specific category.  Worse still, people put themselves into a “genre,” telling themselves they only like one specific type of music.

My iTunes does not display “genres,” I switched them off because the iTunes database is ridiculously loaded with so many stupid (and hopelessly redundant) categories. The worst is offender being Alternative Rock which gets tagged as “Alternative,” “Alternative Rock,” “Alternative and Punk,” “Punk and Rock,” “Punk Rock” and so on and so forth.  If, like me, you’ve give up on genre and all the stupid baggage that goes along with it, you’ll find yourself descending into the rabbit hole of awesome music.

Case in point: I used to be a “no rap or country” guy until I realized how foolish and narrow-minded such a worldview was.  For one thing, rock music (which I love) has it’s roots firmly planted in country music–so much so that to deny a love of country would be hypocritical.  Rap music, on the other hand, is probably the only culturally relevant art form going right now, not like rap or denying it credibility would like people in the 1950’s ignoring TV.  I mean, to do so  (and many did) meant they missed an incredible cultural shift.

* * *

Part I: Space Cowboys

But enough philosophizing, this post is called “Space Cowboys” because Keith Richards got me to listen to some damn fine music. I read his epic tome LIFE when it came out, and one of the most interesting bits was his relationship with Gram Parsons. Parsons was Richards brother-in-arms during the late 1960’s.  Whereas Richards came from the RnB/blues  school, Parsons came from more of a country background.  Their friendship was pretty interesting and profound (influencing both Parsons and The Stones).   Keith liked Gram so much he let Gram record one of his greatest songs first (he let him record “Wild Horses” first, if  handing someone your greatest masterpiece isn’t bro-love, I don’t know what is).  In a way they became almost mirror images of each other, until Parsons tragically died of a drug overdose.  Anyway, Richards got me interested in his friend Gram (he spoke so highly of him) so I started digging around in his music.

Gram + Keef = BBF's 4 Eva

Turns out Gram Parsons pretty much invented Wilco.  Well, to be precise, he invited “Alt-Country” or whatever the hell the dipshits at Pitchfork.com are calling the music being created today that strattles the line between alternative rock and country music (drat! foiled again by descriptions of genre).  In 1969 he put out the first country-rock album…ever with his band The International Submarine Band.  After that he joined the floundering Byrds and convinced them to put out a country record (!).  That album, SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO, shouldn’t have surprised people (is there really much distance between folk and country?) but it kinda did.  It kinda blew everybody’s mind, and thanks to Parsons, the band put out one of their best records.  And all he did was rather than having the band make music influenced by country, Parsons had the Byrds doing country music. The stylistic jumble was basically country music, but not quite. Thus a genre was born.

But Parsons was a maverick and was soon out of The Byrds and forming The Flying Burrito Brothers.  I know what you’re thinking–incredibly stupid name, but I was blown away by this band. 1969 was a strange time, and the combination of psychedelic rock merged with country music bred a new kind of cowboy: the Space Cowboys.  These brave men were schooled in the popular Top 40 rock of the day but loved classic country music.  From these intrepid “astronauts” bands like Wilco, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, The Wallflowers…hell even REM came into being.

Flying Burrito Brothers, not known for their fashion sense.

The first two Flying Burrito Brothers records, THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN and BURRITO DELUX, are two fantastic records from end to end.  Songs like “Wheels” exist somewhere in between psychedelic rock and country–in a place that I never knew existed (or was quite frankly, so fucking exquisite).  At first I found myself pulling away from the “country” aspects of Parsons creations and only admiring their “rock” elements.  But after awhile my prejudices/hangups fell by the wayside (mostly because “Sin City” is fucking righteous song) and I found myself enjoying music I would have otherwise dismissed outright.

* * *

Part II: What does it all Mean?

Delving deeper into this exciting genre of “Space Cowboys,” I happened upon a band with an even stranger name than The Flying Burrito Brothers (if you can believe that): The New Riders of The Purple Sage.  With a name like that, I’m sure you won’t be too terribly shocked when I tell you that famous Dead-Head Jerry Garcia was a member of the band.  More than just a “country side-project,” The New Riders are a ridiculously  awesome hybrid of rock and country.  Taking the next logical step from The Grateful Dead’s AMERICAN BEAUTY  album, THE NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE turns down the stoner-folk and turns up the country.  Both the Parsons albums and The New Riders could be classified as straight “country”  or straight “folk” or straight “rock.”   That they could also be (and are) part of a new hybrid of existing genres should speak volumes for how awesome this music is.  That this movement of “Space Cowboys” happened at the end of the 1960’s/early 1970’s was no accident.  The 1970’s saw an explosion of country influenced rock (and vice versa rock influenced country).  Hell, the era’s biggest, most successful band, The Eagles (also known as “the fuckin’ Eagles, man”) was a country-infused rock band.

So what does all this mean? Well I think it’s important to realize that some really awesome stuff happens “in between” the boring, staid genres.  It’s like tectonic plates bumping and colliding, forming mountains–the best shit tends of happen at the spots where genres collide.  I’ve grown as a music fan/aficionado and now, instead of staring blankly into the middle of a particular genre (even if it’s one I love, like rock) I know go out of my way to explore the fringes of all the genres.  After all, today’s “cowboys” living on the fringe of art often become the next generations mainstream heroes (Wilco).

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

8 thoughts on “On Genre and Space Cowboys

  1. Great piece! Having been a Gram fan since about ’86, I am always pleased to see more folks rediscovering his beautiful music. His music is staying alive, relevant, and influential to this day.

  2. spyderbytedave says:

    Glad to see more people turning on to Gram, he was a bonafide musical genius in my book. You need to also check out a band called The Mother Hips, they are phenomenal and should be household names. They also bend genres in ways that show the fallacy of looking at music through the lens of defined categorization.

  3. I’ve listened to Gram Parson’s my whole life (30 years), If you haven’t listened to the solo albums he did right before he died (GP and Grievous Angel) you’re really missing out. I named my son after Gram when he was born last year. I feel honored that my son gets to carry his name. I can only hope that I can pass onto him the love i have for Parsons’ music.

    • Jason says:

      Woah you’re a super-fan! I have both his solo albums and think they’re pretty fab. Gram was truly ahead of his time, I feel like modern music is still catching up to him.

  4. Michael Wense says:

    Such a good post. And yes, genre is an incredibly limiting way of looking at music. I, for one, do not so much enjoy the country music always blaring out of your car’s speakers. But, I do occasionally like some alt-country or even modern day bluegrass music. There are some incredibly talented artists out there who will unfortunately never be more popular just because they’re pigeonholed into one “genre.”

    • Jason says:

      The older I get Wense, the more variety I like in my music. I think part of it has to do with the fact that one can only hear the same Led Zeppelin song so many times…

      I sit at work (as I’ve written about on this very blog) and listen to nothing but modern country music–and most of it sucks just as much as what’s on the modern rock station. It’s rough all over.

  5. JAH says:

    The genre you’re looking for is Cosmic American Music. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: