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Country's Cousins

I'm no historian, but it seems to me that the genre of music we call country is fairly new -- if you compare it to classical, or folk, or even blues. What amazes me is how our boot-wearin', rodeo-lovin' friends shun several genres that seem so closely related to country. Lucky for me, this is a magazine based mostly on opinions, so here are some of mine on the subject.

I love something about nearly every type of music (except maybe polka, although it would probably be fun to dance to if I were coordinated and graceful). Folk music is probably my favorite. Whether I like an artist or group depends not so much on quality of voice (hell-o, Tom Waits?) as quality of sound, of mood, of things I'm not always able to define. It's also largely about lyrics. Whatever mood I'm in can usually be enhanced, altered or influenced in some way by the likes of John Gorka, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith, etc. I can also find as many different instrumental sounds as there are artists. Acoustic is generally my favorite sound with singer/songwriters, but folk stretches into the world music category, as well. Next thing you know, there are electronic gizmos, and instruments whose names I can't begin to pronounce.

Returning to a more traditional kind of folk, I find it difficult to understand why someone who really loves George Strait would have such a problem with Lyle Lovett, for instance. A generalized statement, but not without merit. Folk and country blend different elements of style and content, but there are many similarities, too. Don't believe me? Try some Cheryl Wheeler, Lucy Kaplansky or Martin Sexton.

Speaking of world music, let's look at the Irish/Scottish/Welsh/Canadian thing known as Celtic. It's gained in popularity since the invasion of Riverdance, but it's been around for more years than country, I promise.

Flutes, whistles and bagpipes are some of the traditional instruments found in Celtic music, but so are fiddles, mandolins and guitars. Celtic music also has some of the funniest lyrics, and some of the most tragic I've ever heard. Sound familiar? Several country artists have blended elements of Celtic into their work -- ever heard Kathy Mattea's version of "From A Distance?" The bagpipes toward the end make that song. I've also heard crossovers like Maura O'Connell and Mary Black on what would typically be country radio. Sometimes the difference between the social and economical statements of Celtic and country is just geography.

Back on our own home soil, yet just as foreign, is Cajun/Zydeco music. I love that Louisiana sound, whether the words are in English or French. It's a musical style that works on the off-beats (not to mention an off-beat style of music for this part of the country.) Most country fans will recognize strains of Cajun in Hank Williams Sr.'s "Jambalaya" and Mary-Chapin Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and Shout." It's fun music, one of the few forums for accordions and washboards. When I hear it I can't help but smile, and I really wish I knew how to dance! I've been brave enough to risk alienation at work a time or two by listening to Beausoleil, or one of the Alligator Stomp collections that contain a variety of Cajun artists.

Typical responses:
"What the hell is this $#!+?", or
"I've never heard this kind of music before, but I'll take it!"
Ya gotta love a style of music that inspires such strong reactions!

Lastly, there's bluegrass. From Bill Monroe to Ricky Skaggs to all the lesser-knowns in-between, I really dig this stuff. So does my sister, who hates most country music. On the other hand, most of my country-lovin' friends don't know Ralph Stanley from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Give these folks a banjo and guitar and they'll turn any tune into bluegrass. I also prefer (as with any of the aforementioned styles) the addition of fiddle. With or without, it makes me clap my hands, stomp my feet and look around for a blade of grass to stick between my teeth.

Speaking of, look for the 1999 Beartrap Festival on Casper Mountain July 24-25. For a few measly dollars, you and the family (or you escaping the family) can wander through the food and craft booths, listening to bluegrass all day long. Or, if you prefer, you can sprawl onto the grass with a nice, cool drink and lots of suntan lotion. Either way, the festival has converted a lot of folks into fans. The past couple of years the Casper Symphony has played as well, lending their style of American music to the occasion. If your exposure to bluegrass music thus far in life has been the theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies," I strongly advise you to check this out!

There you have it, country fans -- reasons and arguments for giving other music a try. If you were "country when country wasn't cool," imagine the trends you could start with some of this music!

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Kate Rice

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