If any reader is interested in hearing some good country-blues, he should get himself a copy of either Midnight at the Movies or Harlem River Blues, by Justin Townes Earle. Memorable albums, both of them; charming in sound and texture, ably composed and executed, alive with all the rich variety of American country-blues. Good stuff. Nashville and New York City (whereto the singer decamped for the latter album) should be proud.
Songs like “Christchurch Woman,” “Working for the MTA,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Halfway to Jackson,” and the title tracks of both albums: I say, if you like country-blues you can’t help but enjoy these numbers.
I am well aware, of course, that few readers here are much interested in country-blues, least of all by some drink- and drug-addled Tennessee punk with less than half clue.
Nevertheless it is, in my judgment, very hard to understand America without understanding country-blues. Shall we amputate New Orleans? Has Nashville produced no music which merits praise and memorial? Is Blind Willie McTell not worthy of remembrance? How do you tell the great story of oppression and liberty for American blacks bereft of their songs, both spiritual and secular?
To back up a moment, there is an argument to the effect what’s popular and superficial today may one day appear rich and venerable. In its most vulgar form, the argument is on the lips of the cut-rate cynic or prostitute prognosticator who utters flippantly that this year’s pop star is a distant century’s Shakespeare.
That last is surely nonsense of a very feeble order. Nevertheless, it is true that not a few artists, in their own time, died wanting a just estimate of their skill and achievement.
Broadening my field of analogy, it seems clear to me that the names of the great literary men of the postwar American Right will dramatically rise with the demise of their petty partisan detractors. Current estimate denigrates them unfairly; but history’s estimate will not.
I would nominate Willmoore Kendall (for giving forth with his lively pen a truly splendid amalgam of careful theoretical precision, in the Straussian vein, and a wonderful humor splashed with American country slang) and Whittaker Chambers (for uniting such bleak yet instructive pessimism to such an extraordinary story of redemption, and living in the American country). I’m sure good cases could be made for others: Buckley, Burnham, Kirk, even Walker Percy or Harry Jaffa. The writing on the Right since the Second World War has ever labored under the snobbery of American liberals, whose own product of a comparable vintage was no great shakes anyway.
So I do think it is possible for a tradition of creative activity to be unjustly treated in its own time; and then, in the fullness of critical and scholarly examination, rebound rapidly to proper stature. This possibility I suggest to current-day Conservatives regarding the folk tradition of country-blues.
Readers know, of course, by abiding admiration for Bob Dylan. His full body of work, which is neither wholly lyrical nor wholly musical, will hold and defend its place — precisely for its embodiment and innovations in the country-blues style of American music.
But one last thing about this kid Earle: he sings well. He may not be Johnny Cash, but he aint no Bob Dylan. His voice is versatile (Dylan’s never was); it is not truly excellent but it is rich and rhythmic where Dylan’s is so often thin and stilted.
Justin Townes Earle is highly recommended.