You’d think, with its historical tendencies towards Republicanism, mawkishness and garish inanity, country and western would be given a wide berth by the modernist, metropolitan sophisticates of the indie scene. And yet there’s an obvious attraction: an earthy, rooted realness, and the rugged allure embodied by darker characters such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. As such, country has pulled in some improbable aficionados from leftfield: the Charlatans, Nick Cave, Hefner and Prefab Sprout have all tried the 10-gallon hat on for size with varying degrees of success.
The difficulty, of course, is that you can’t just pull on a pair of cowboy boots and call yourself country. Take Twickenham’s Mystery Jets, who went to Texas to record their last album Radlands and immediately started twanging out things called The Ballad Of Emmerson Lonestar, as if a bit of Waylon Jennings might rub off on them by osmosis. It didn’t. This is a band with an actual geographical legacy – Eel Pie Island – so why try to adopt someone else’s?
Copenhagen’s Iceage, meanwhile, started off as teenage hardcore punks and as recently as 2013 were imitating the glacial motions of classic Joy Division. But on their latest album, Plowing Into The Field Of Love, they clatter along like a truckful of pitchfork-wielding rednecks chasing the local hippies out of town. The concept of Danish country-punk could have been interesting, but perhaps out of a misguided desire for earthiness and substance, Iceage have merely trundled down a well-trodden road to nowhere.
Worst of all is Christopher Owens, former frontman of yearning indie pop combo Girls. On his latest single, Nothing More Than Everything To Me, he’s gone full-on country gospel – pedal steels and all the trimmings – though any rhinestone twinkle is dulled by a plodding, white-folks-can’t-dance rhythm that recalls Phil Collins doing Motown. Which is apt, for while the 80s vogue for whiteys such as Collins, Michael, Hucknall etc to ape soul mannerisms felt like the musical version of “blackface”, the appropriation of country feels like an act of “whiteface” – buying into a mythical notion of the “authenticity” of country, uncomfortably close to Sarah Palin’s notion of “real America”, a reactionary, kitschy abandonment of the exploratory urge in favour of cautionary conservatism.
Country is about the spirit, not the trappings, something understood by Londoners Morton Valence on the harrowing, cinematic “urban country” of their current album Left, or by genuine Texan Scott H Biram, whose recent Nothin’ But Blood set fuses country and metal with whiskey-soaked, railroad intensity. They know that country’s not a genre you merely imitate; it’s to be absorbed, spat out, evolved from, and messed up real good.