Monday, April 2, 2012

How Gaming Made Me Like Country Music

I've always liked to think that I'm flexible when it comes to musical, with a few genre exceptions. Country was one of them; maybe it was family vacations where the adults chose Garth Brooks CDs that did it for me, or maybe it was radio stations playing borderline racist Toby Keith songs. Sure, I liked bluegrass, but that was folk music, not country. I was a liberal middle-class city girl, and I knew I wasn't country's target audience. So be it- not all music works for all people.

And then it turned out I was wrong, thanks to a couple of supernatural western RPGs.

My groups have always liked to have a gaming soundtrack, put at low volume during the entire session or just climactic scenes; dragon-killing is even more fun with Nightwish on in the background. It's a common practice among roleplayers, and some game books even make suggestions as to what music you should listen to while playing. Such was the case with Dogs in the Vineyard.

I've mentioned this game before, but it's something of a noir-western where you play Mormon gunslingers battling demons of sin (who are either abstract concepts or physical monsters- our GM always chose the latter.) The book reccomended putting on some spirituals and murder ballads on while playing, with maybe a little Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. My group went through our music collections and contributed songs for the playlist; Johnny Cash was there, Ennio Morricone was there, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was prominent, and a few tracks came from Nick Cave's album of murder ballads.

Johnny Cash was better than I expected; after listening to God's Gonna Cut You Down, I understood why he had such a following. The game was lots of fun, the soundtrack was a hit, and when it came time to play Deadlands, I decided to look for things to make another monster-western soundtrack.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia...hey, that's a really good song! So are these Appalachian ballads. And so is some band called Sixteen Horsepower. This page says they fit in the goth-country subgenre; does that mean there's more like it?

I had discovered the worlds of traditional and alt-country, which were much more to my taste than Toby Keith or Garth Brooks. Just as I discovered when Lupe Fiasco broke my preconceptions about rap, the good stuff doesn't always end up on the radio.

I'm not the only one who likes alt-country better than its pop equivalent. Columnist Chuck Klosterman argued that such banjo-filled ballads are made primarily for hipsters, and that pop-country is "real" because it reflects the actual experiences and preferences of rural Americans. Triggerman from Saving Country Music argues the opposite, that pop-country isn't real country, but a dumbed-down mess that reflects the truth of no one's life, while alt and traditional tap into the rich musical traditions of genuine Americana.

I'm not really one to speak on this matter as an aforementioned city girl; my mother fled the South as soon as she could, and it's never been a strong part of my heritage. Still, perhaps the fact that bands like O'Death and the Carolina Chocolate Drops can reach my jaded city heart counts for something?

All I know is that just as bringing in outside sources such as soundtracks can give a greater appreciation for the gaming experience, it can also work the other way around.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see you've stumbled into such a great genre of music. Gaming has broadened my musical horizons in similar ways.

    I'd never pass for anything other than a Yankee city boy in the South, but my own Southern roots are not so far below the surface and perhaps that's what led me to explore classic country myself. It's a real shame that the last quarter-century or so of mainstream country music has been so completely execrable; it's obscured a lot of good music.

    Here are a few more recommendations, in addition to what you've already listed:

    - Gram Parsons, everything. His solo work plus the stuff he did with the Byrds (one album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo") and the Flying Burrito Brothers (first two albums, I believe). His stuff with Emmylou Harris is particularly excellent.
    - "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Hippy roots rockers team up with an all-star menagerie of country music legends.
    - Bob Wills. Western swing is just a bunch of fun to listen to.
    - The Maddox Brothers. So too is this group of hillbilly proto-rockers.
    - The Louvin Brothers. You haven't lived til you've listened to "Satan Is Real" (the song and the album both).
    - The Carter Family. Pure Americana. "Single Girl, Married Girl" is one of my top songs of all time.
    - Maria McKee. Fantastic alt-country. Also check out the band she was first in, Lone Justice.