I don’t really “get” country music, but today’s not the day to get into the whys of that statement. Suffice it to say that country exists in a world far apart from the one a city boy like myself grew up understanding. The one aspect I will mention at the moment is what the genre actually means. I am far from most qualified to discuss this topic, so I’ll make it brief, to be explored, perhaps, at a later date. See, country music brings up two musical images. The first is a real backwoods vibe, maybe a hoedown, with stomping and fiddles and twang so thick Sir Mix-a-Lot would hit on it, or perhaps a maudlin ballad to a lost love, dead dog, and stalled truck. It’s where even classic artists like Willie Nelson tend to fit in. On the other side, we have the Modern Country image, which really seems to be a catch-all for artists who can’t make it in any other genre. The operable differences between Taylor Swift and Any Other Teen Pop Star are negligible. The worst American Idol contestant to get a contract on any given year is probably picked up to sing country. Shania Twain exists as a thing. Modern country, simply put, is totally nebulous as a musical sound. The difficulty is, if this be true, the genre sways between some sort of embarrassing yokel stereotype and a soulless non-identity. This is not remotely the strongest reason I cannot identify, but it certainly is among the ranks.
This is really a shame, of course, because no genre needs be particularly bad. In fact, the sorts of instruments most associated with country music are some of the most beautiful instruments. The violin, the mandolin, the pedal steel (oh god, the pedal steel, don’t get me started)… I guess even the banjo if you catch me on the right day… these are instruments that have worlds of potential when not strummed at breakneck speed or put in the hands of someone named Mumford. There’s a rustic, artisan feeling to the sounds, which is incredibly welcoming in an over-synthetic age. I will always be a slave to a great, fuzzy tone on an electric guitar, but the natural jangle of a mandolin or swoop of a bowed instrument is its own small bit of magic. The conflict is that in a Venn diagram, the sliver where Mandolin meets Compelling Music is slim indeed, and mostly bogged down with various folk traditions. That’s fine and good, but it’s not exactly everyday listening.
Nickel Creek impressed me, however, in the easiest, most obvious way possible for a band to impress me: they played their instruments well. That’s an important first step: convince me your musical talent far exceeds mine, and I’m more likely to cut you slack, no matter what the genre. Of course, it’s not everything. Technical proficiency is great, but songwriting is better. On that card, Nickel Creek starts on shakier footing. For every intriguing song, there’s a heavy handed one, a schmaltzy twee one, or a silly folk standard. “Out of the Woods” seems to fit this pattern on first blush as well: the lyrics are repetitive and brief, the tempo is slow, and Sara Watkins, the first vocalist in the song, has the sort of saccharine, cutesy voice that makes everything sound like it should be surrounded by teddybears. It’s not super promising on paper, and hearing that voice intone the first words, “I wish you,” fills the listener with a sense of dread on par with the first time they hear Snow White wish for the one she loves.
As should be expected, however, things are not how they appear. On that fourth word, the “out” of the title, her brother Sean and multi-instrumentalist Chris Thile bring their own voices in. The sound becomes lush and warm, and the sweetness of Sara’s voice has a foil against which to fall back. The rest of the song lulls the listener into this warm comfort, as the vocal line progresses in pure harmonies. The vocals become a hypnotic thrum of something living and breathing and pumping its lifeblood… the hum of the woods itself perhaps. Certainly the instruments feel organic and of the song’s place. The brevity of the words, in this setting, feels more contemplative, and the whole song takes on a bit of the Shakespearean Green World. Perhaps I’ve lost many of you on that one, but in short, there is the idea that the woods are enchanted. They may be wishing someone out of the confusion and darkness of the woods, but their performance ratchets up the mystical elements of being surrounded by unknowable nature. The song is all the better for it.
It’s no secret that country music has always espoused the simple life, but when you can break music down to layers of beauty with no gimmicks to cloud them, and deliver a beautiful violin solo to top it all off, that seems way more authentic to me than talkin’ bout girls/talkin’ bout trucks, or lyin’ on the coldhardground (OHHHHHHHH! Ooooohhhh!) The simplicity of Nickel Creek’s world is one which can almost be smelled and tasted. Maybe a city boy doesn’t want to live there, but it sounds ever so welcoming and both new and old at once. It’s worth it to take the visit.
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