COUNTRY MUSIC TODAY consists of hokey, exhausted metaphors and simple-minded sentimentality. But long before the days of Garth and Shania, the whole of country and western wasn’t built on static populism or vapid pop sludge. It was meaner, dirtier, and seedier, even by today’s shock-proof standards.
From the random singles for tiny labels in Anytown, USA, made to be performed with drinking buddies at the local honky-tonk on Saturday night, to major recordings by some of the biggest stars that Music City has produced, depravity and hardcore vices have long been a part of country’s regular diet. Drugs and liquor were consumed and celebrated, the morals of the lyrics not necessarily in keeping with the laws of the land. Lovers and enemies were threatened, hunted, and murdered with bleak humor in tow and no consequences in sight. Raw, adulterous sex imagery was invoked using language only slightly more flowery than the average Led Zep-type lust-a-thon—Jimmy Davis, who’d later give us the covertly sinister “You Are My Sunshine,” recorded the more direct “Organ Grinder Blues” back in 1933.
In the late ’50s, a little known honky-tonker named Eddie Noack would record songs such as “Dolores” and “Psycho” for the Starday label. They’ve recently been unearthed on bootleg compilations of so-called “psycho country,” nestled in with tracks you’d sooner expect to find in a Brett Easton Ellis novel than in a 40-year-old country tune. In a plaintive tone, backed by sweetly gliding pedal steel, Noack’s narrator tells of women found dead in the town park and a killer running around the neighborhood, while also reflecting on the pressures that are driving him mad; it’s a strong hint that the narrator and the predator are one and the same.
Then there’s Porter Wagoner, author of some of the cheesiest countrypolitan tripe ever recorded, onetime hit-making duet partner to Dolly Parton, and a respected member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wagoner documented the dark side of human nature in a way that not only endears him to the regulars at Gilley’s but would do Eminem proud. “Rubberoom” is a classic portrait of a hallucinating madman, recorded with so many layers of reverb and echo on the vocals that it’s as much a dub version as a grim country song. “Cold Hard Facts of Life” is the tale of a husband returning from a business trip early to find his wife “entertaining” another; he exacts revenge with an extremely big knife. But best of all is Wagoner’s sordid soliloquy “The First Mrs. Jones,” in which the narrator tells of marrying a woman who soon leaves him due to his violent schizophrenia, stalking her around the country, then killing her and burying her bones in the woods. The punch line, if you can call it that, is that he’s telling this to the newly wedded “second Mrs. Jones.”
Wagoner and Noack apparently never acted out the violent aggression present in their songs. Other purveyors of country’s shadowy yang were less detached. Johnny Paycheck (of “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill” fame) was jailed in 1985 for attempted manslaughter, stemming from a barroom brawl. Ira Louvin, who along with his brother Charlie made up the finest and most acclaimed harmony duo in the history of country, was jailed in 1964 after a drunken argument with his armed spouse. And the numerous legal entanglements of Jerry Lee Lewis, a.k.a. “The Killer,” and the last great honky-tonk singer left breathing, fill their own volume (Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, to be exact).
Probably the most infamous example of a psycho-country artist crossing the line is the story of Spade Cooley. Cooley, a big-band leader who carried the title of “King of Western Swing” long before Bob Wills rose to fame, starred in numerous post-war cowboy films before his career went south. In 1961, a drunken Cooley beat his wife to death as their 14-year-old daughter looked on; the girl’s testimony helped convict him. It didn’t help that in in 1957, Cooley’s orchestra had recorded a spirited high-stepper called “You Clobbered Me,” with a female vocalist at the helm.
Some of Cooley’s recordings were collected and reissued earlier this year by Soundies/Bloodshot as Shame On You: Spade Cooley & the Western Swing Dance Gang. Other records from the period may be harder to find, but a good compilation is available on Capitol: Rebels & Outlaws: Music from the Wild Side of Life. For the more hardcore stuff, seek out a bootleg compilation called God Less America: Country & Western fer All Ye Sinners’n’Sufferers (available from http://www.crypt.de). It’s a great introduction to psycho-country, and it features people you’ve never heard of doing songs you won’t soon forget.