Looking Down The Track: Shantell Ogden and Americana vs. Country

The fifth and latest album from Shantell Ogden

I was really excited to speak to Shantell Ogden, because, you know, country singer, Nashville, transatlantic interview, plus very good new album (The Road That Drives Me), and, er, me, in my kids’ bedroom with the bunk beds as a backdrop. I didn’t particularly expect us to end up in a discussion of what makes music Americana rather than country and how the one has ceased to be a subgenre of the other because nobody with any credibility wants to be known as ‘country’ anymore – but I was pleased when we did.

AmericanaFest recently had a whole panel about the subject, featuring Rent-An-Alt-Gob Rodney Crowell and Jim Lauderdale amongst others. ‘I thought there were some really good observations,’ Ogden told me. ‘One of the things that I totally agreed with was that most people in the US think that country music is what they hear on Top 40 country radio. And that’s really how it gets defined here in the US. I think Americana is more what country used to be, more roots- and blues-oriented. You don’t hear a lot of blues in today’s Top 40 country music, and that was always a huge influence on people like Willie Nelson.’  

I’m sure some who now fall into Americana are quite blithe about repudiating country, and some – maybe particularly the elder statesmen – agonize over it a bit. And if they don’t, they should. Because country is a label worth reclamation.

The thing is - there have always been periods, in country music as in any genre, where the mainstream was unbelievably mainstream, just as there were periods before or after them when the credible crept into the popular. But I don’t believe the Bakersfield Sound fellas who found the Nashville Sound so rasping disavowed country music, nor the neotraditionalists who didn’t much fancy countrypolitan. Why, now, is an artist of the stature of Emmylou Harris who has been making the best of country music for more than forty years, declining to define herself as country? Why does a younger artist like Shantell Ogden pause when I ask her which label she uses for herself, and then squarely choose Americana? ‘Over here I would be considered to be an Americana artist, because what I do is not something that would be played on Top 40 country radio. It’s not pop enough to be played, and it doesn’t include some of the other influences. Like rap.  Rap is starting to creep its way into country.’

This fine album of Shantell Ogden’s is, to my ears, straight-up country. It sounds (bear with me, I’m about to be not cool) like something off of Nashville, as in the TV show. One song, ‘About Lovin’ Me’, sounds really a ton like a Rayna Jaymes song, if Connie Britton, God love her for a saint, had a stronger voice. But Rayna Jaymes is portrayed as ‘the reigning queen of country,’ so how come in real life this song comes with an Americana tag? (I mean at one point a man who sounds like he’s tapping his foot yells, ‘She’s gonna school ya, boys.’) I heard an industry woman on the BBC recently, talking about the state of country music, and saying that none of the music from Nashville the show (which a British audience finds so unexpectedly delightful) would ever be played on country music radio. ‘I think it’s absolutely true,’ Ogden says when I put this to her. ‘I giggle that nobody in Nashville gets a record deal when they play the Bluebird. Some of the scenarios are not real, and they’re kind of basing it I think on what Nashville used to be – or what people even wish it was.’

Americana used to be a label for music that sat where country and folk overlapped, or mingled with blues. You might with some plausibility call Townes Van Zandt Americana, but not Willie Nelson, surely. But I don’t know anymore. It seems to me that George Jones might still scrape into what we call country but Merle Haggard almost certainly wouldn’t, and Jimmie Rodgers wouldn’t even come close. Well, what kind of state of affairs is that? I deplore it. Why are we abandoning the name ‘country’ to a bunch of warbling, ahistorical knobheads in denim shirts and medallions?

Of course, it’s easy for me to talk, because let’s be frank, nobody has to give a toss about the CMA awards or the country charts over here in the UK, they’re a bit of a joke and one without the bitter tang. I know there are folks in this country who like what Ogden calls the ‘Top 40’ country stuff, but I’m not faced with them on a regular basis. ‘That’s one of the reasons that I really like to tour over there,’ Ogden agrees, ‘because  I feel like there is  an appreciation still for good storytelling, and songwriting.’ I guess it would be very dispiriting to call yourself country and then turn up for a gig and see people’s faces fall when they realize you actually meant it.

More importantly, anyway, whatever the label it gives itself, there is still good music being made, music which musically speaking has no pretensions other than country. Ogden is from Utah, but when I ask if country music is as pervasive there as it is in, for example, her new home state of Tennessee, she says that yes, it is, because it speaks to rural and small town life everywhere. ‘It’s the soundtrack of everybody’s experience. So many of the scenarios that you experience in a small town are part of those common themes for country music.’ She grew up listening to George Strait, and Reba McEntire, and (lest we forget about other times when country and pop were sometimes distinguished only by what the performers wore in the way of hats or chaps) Shania Twain.

Not being strictly from the South seems not to be such an issue anymore, and one can only approve of that as artists from Iris DeMent to Gillian Welch to Margo Price continue to prove how lousy with authenticity they are. Anyway Ogden’s songs pay their dues. ‘Different Sides Of The Mississippi’ works the old time-tested river metaphor of Southern music, to mournful effect. Then there’s ‘The Truth About Trains’ – well, nothing more country than a train song, except maybe one which chugs like a train like this does. She’s got a ratbag ex-lover she’s comparing to a locomotive (and not in a good way); ‘They can’t feel, they’re cold hard steel,’ she sings. ‘That’s the truth about trains and you.’ Ouch.

I like ‘Love Knew Better’ too, it’s gorgeous country cornball, with lines like, ‘Had my share of near misses. There were all those close-call kisses.’ The woman knows what to do with a rhyme, and how to make an unexpected one seem inevitable and an inevitable one unexpected. That’s a hell of a trick for any writer.

It’s a brief enough album at less than half an hour long but it covers heartache, despair, romance, temptation, aged-up wisdom and driving ambition. Much like any good soap opera, much like any collection of good country songs. I just wish that Nashville was a bit more like Nashville so we could get away with calling it what it is.