Home Truths (Beverley Hillbilly/MGM)
Back in the days when it was still semi-acceptable to deride hip hop - especially in its bling-and-k-ching period - from a position of superiority as participant in or fan of a longer-living music form like rock, pop and country, a common complaint was that not only was it self-centred but stylistically self-referential.
I gotta tell you, whether that was true or not then it would be hard to argue that it was any more so than country music. Apart from songs about drugs and drink (in alternative country circles) and beer and babes (in bro country circles) – and for that matter, utes and boots in Australian country – it often feels to me that the most popular topic in a country song is country songs.
You can see why, I guess. It places the singer in the same territory as the fan – hey, don’t we all love country brother? – and validates their choices; it reinforces the long line/tradition in which the singer wants to be associated; it establishes a supposed realness because country music likes to see itself as more real, more earthed, than other genres, and here you are praising it, so you must be real, earthed etc; and it goes hand in hand with the celebration of country people/people on the land as authentic, deserving respect in a way city folk could never earn, and not flighty like those pop/hip hop/weirdo music fans.
My confession at this point is that I have an almost visceral reaction to such displays, the lyrical equivalent to putting on a big hat, slipping on a tighter pair of jeans and scratching your nails down a blackboard. So that partially explains my response to Catherine Britt’s new album, the first, we’re told, she has made wholly independently in a career begun almost two decades ago as a barely teenage discovery north of Sydney whose voice (prematurely deepened and aged), influences (the Hanks, Williams and Cochran, the Louvins, and generally dust more than tarmac) and associations (Kasey Chambers and her father Bill) were not the standard local ones.
The first track on the album is called I Am A Country Song, the second is Fav’Rit Song and the fourth is Country Fan. That’s a lot of boxes ticked early. Trouble ahead?
I’m A Country Song posits her in a spinifex and dust environment where there’s not much to do on a Friday night, though “Mama liked to play her music loud”, and the banjo suggests we’re possibly on the verge of hokum - as does the poster on the kitchen wall in the filmclip which advises “Eat, Drink And Be Married”.
But there are lines like “heavy drinking, Daddy taught me how” and the strong hint in “I know old Hank would understand, and I know George Jones would be my friend”, of where that inevitably leads. There’s a litany of busted romances that don’t just end in tears but “heavy hands” and “a loaded gun”. And there’s a certainty that happiness isn’t certain by a long shot. As she says “It’s like they wrote those songs about my life … I don’t need the radio to tell me what’s wrong/I’m a country song”.
Hmm. A bit too real for easy dismissal. Ok, how about Fav’Rit Song? If you get past that spelling, the song opens with her earliest memory “riding in my Dad’s car/Think we went to a football game/To watch the Knights and the Sharkies play”, and of course when he turns the radio on, it’s a country song. But not that country song, one that spoke for him as much as to him: “For a man of so few words, he found a way to be heard”.
After that the clip-clop rhythm and easy tone covers territory of lovers, friends and others sharing thoughts through their choice of songs, stays pleasant and buoyant, and while it doesn’t say anything new it doesn’t sink all the way into that pit.
Which leaves us with Country Fan, worryingly a duet with the king of country cliches, the oracle of the obvious, the first bloke of blokedom, Lee Kernaghan. In a rock-edged modern country vehicle, that is built for driving not parking (if you catch my drift) Britt and Kernaghan may be presenting the fan in one verse and the artist in the other but it’s not entirely clear which one is which.
In a sense it doesn’t matter as neither has anything original to say - “One thing I’ve come to realise/After many years and long miles/For you I’ll do all that I can/There’s nothing like a country fan” - but also because the point is there is no real difference. A healthy connection? Ah, that’s another question for another song. For now, if you can squint hard maybe you can see past what cynical ears might call pandering, or what sweeter minds might call pampering.
Britt’s career has never been a formula. She’s moved from old school to ultra-modern, bluegrass to rock-influenced, shiny to gritty, and back again. What’s more, she’s been prepared to be frank and personal at times – or at least suggest it - something this album looks to revel in with a song such as Mother (“I’m so sorry Mother/For the times I made you cry”) and maybe the inside-baseball music industry revelations of the stand-up-and-punch-the-air Me.
That they sit alongside both the more complicated emotions of The Original Sin (a daughter who should have been a boy, her life forged in something darker) and the more generic whiskey and lies-type overly familiar lines of Make A Diamond, its energetic neighbour Gonna Be Mumma, Hard To Love and the not as tough minded as it thinks title track, makes a final positive call harder.