Tim Jonze 

Tim Jonze On Shuffle … modern country music

This month Tim's tour of genres takes the pulse of Nashville's greatest export
  
  

Perhaps it's not the most encouraging sign to start a journey into the world of country music with a blog called Nashville's Dead. As you don't need me telling you, Nashville is the spiritual/industrial home of country music, so when two young upstarts (13 and 15 years old!) get forthright on the best music coming out of Nashville right now, and none of it sounds that much like country, you start to worry for the genre's health. Don't get me wrong – Nashville's kids do seem to be filling the basements of east Nashville with noise, but garage rock is the flavour of the day, no doubt a rebellion against their parent's heritage, buoyed by the arrival of Jack White's Third Man Records in their city.

Of course, on a commercial level, Nashville is far from dead – in terms of our crumbling industry it's as future-proof as music gets, shifting over 40m albums a year according to the most recent Nielsen SoundScan statistics. Which is, no matter which way you slice it, somewhat more than chillwave manages.

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The Nashville industry features big hitters like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, a former American Idol contestant whose fourth album Blown Away gave her a third chart-topping country album. All chunky riffs and polished production, for me the more commercial end of country often tramples on the soulful subtlety. One recent big hit that avoids this trap to some degree is Eric Church, whose track Springsteen gave him a breakthrough after years of plugging away. We're still talking big, brash pop here, yet Springsteen has a lightness of touch – Church's voice breaks gently as he sings the titular Springsteen post-chorus – and provides the kind of sentimental kick that can help a big US pop song soar. The fact that it's called Springsteen is interesting in itself; namechecking another artist seems like a safe way to get the wider world's attention. Just take Taylor Swift, whose song Tim McGraw was one of her earliest breakthrough hits. Swift is currently gearing up for her fourth album, out later this year, which will be co-written with a host of names including, somewhat weirdly, Ed Sheeran.

Evangelists might argue that any record involving a beatboxer from Framlingham isn't exactly country music at its purest and, certainly, this is a debate that's as old as the hillbillies. From its early origins in the Appalachian mountains and through various strains such as bluegrass, honky tonk, country rock or alt-country, there have always been critics complaining that the genre has lost its purity – even when the artist in their sights is someone like Gram Parsons, striving to move the genre forward into interesting new terrain.

I've always loved Parsons, who blended country music into the music of the Stones and the Byrds, so it's no wonder I fell for Robert Ellis, a cowboy boots'n'Stetson-wearing Texan whose voice sounds uncannily similar to Gram's, cracking in all the right places to give the music that aching, vulnerable quality. His debut album Photographs, out last month, is a record of two halves, opening with stripped-back, confessional songs like Friends Like Those, before breaking out into banjo-pluckin' barnstormers (Comin' Home) and piano-led songs like What's In It For Me? that wouldn't sound out of place on a Flying Burrito Brothers record. No matter his chosen backdrop, it's Ellis' vocals – subtle, refined, yet bleeding with hurt – that take centre stage.

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There are other decent artists doing a more classic take on country right now, including Lera Lynn, a resident of Athens, Georgia whose creepy country songs like Bobby, Baby can be lyrically reminiscent of the Handsome Family (her banjo-assisted TV On The Radio covers, less so). Then there's Houndmouth, a Kentucky four-piece whose softer 60s rock leanings draw comparisons to The Band and, in places, Ryan Adams. There's also Oregon's Rachel Harrington, an avid boxing fan hence the name of her backing band the Knock Outs, who deliver punchy (sorry) country-soul numbers and tender ballads. Her recent fourth album, Make Our House A Honky Tonk, has been described as being "as country as country gets" but the record isn't as hokey as the title suggests. At times it veers on the good-time bar band side but more often there are more refined pleasures on offer – sumptuous vocal harmonies over pedal steel on Love Him Or Leave Him To Me, for instance. Best of all is He's My Man which sounds like Jack White putting a girl group together with the sole purpose of whipping electricity through the Velvet Underground's Foggy Notion.

Classic country sounds aren't confined to the States, either. Over in the UK there are faithful groups such as London's The Barker Band and Bristol's Phantom Limb, who swathe their country-soul in Hammond and Wurltzer before unleashing the huge voice of Yolanda Quartey. On the very opposite side of the world, the likes of Delaney Davidson (from Christchurch, New Zealand) and Australian CW Stoneking are worth checking out – the former specialises in black and bruised ballads called things like You're A Loser, the mixes mixing country with other influences from calypso to the blues.

One problem, for fans of things like musical invention at least, is that all the artists mentioned above rely largely on comfortably retro sounds to do what they do best. This brings me back to Parsons – what made his music so special is that he was always forging the genre he loved with new elements, from rock'n'roll to psychedelia. I wondered if anyone was doing this now.

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Then I heard the music of 31-year-old Daughn Gibson. You might not describe him as a "country artist", but certainly country informs a huge amount of what he does. His album All Hell is a haunting, often disjointed affair – songs like In The Beginning showcase Gibson's deep, almost Scott Walker-esque croon while owing much to hip-hop in the way the beat is constructed. In others, such as Tiffany Lou (and how's that for a country-sounding title?), the music is almost stomach-churning – chopped'n'screwed vocals like chewed up tape which require a couple of listens before you realise just how pretty, and clever, Gibson's melodies are, weaving in and out of the twanging guitars. Fans of Porter Wagoner's classic track Rubber Room will have much to pore over.

Gibson cut his musical teeth in various punk bands, but country music is the overriding influence. Gibson says he fell in love with the genre's storytelling while he was driving trucks for a living and all he had to listen to was country radio. Those long-haul journeys more than paid off musically. Because if Nashville really is dead, then it has left behind some beautiful-sounding ghosts.