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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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).