For the past several years, the German label Bear Family has produced an ambitious series of CDs chronicling postwar country music called Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music. The final batch has just been released, five discs each covering a different year from 1966 to 1970.
This era was, of course, the height of the counterculture with rock becoming ever more musically complex and dominant in the marketplace, and its fans regarding country as simplistic and ideologically suspect.
But these last five volumes paint a more complicated picture of a genre that allows for a range of approaches and viewpoints.
A number of these songs made an impact on the pop charts as well, from Glen Campbell's wistful, orchestrated ballads "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Witchita Lineman" to Johnny Cash's San Quentin crowd-pleaser "A Boy Named Sue" to Ray Price's let's-go-to-bed-one-last-time plea "For the Good Times."
The 1967 volume opens with one of the biggest and best of these crossover hits. Over a gently plucked guitar figure and dramatic swooping strings, Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe" has her family discussing the townsfolk over dinner. Radio listeners wondered all summer just what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge while record label execs wondered if "Billie Joe"'s formula could be successfully repeated.
The first mystery was never solved, but the second one was - it could. Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A." (1968) was another tale of small town gossip, written by one of the best country singer-songwriters to emerge in this period - Tom T. Hall.
What Hall's songs lack in catchy choruses or obvious hooks they make up for with sharp storytelling and wry lyrics. While he was capable of being sentimental, Hall's sensibility was more typified by "Ballad of Forty Dollars" (1968), where its narrator attends an acquaintance's funeral overcome not by grief, but by thoughts of how the deceased still owed him money.
One of the other central figures of this period, Merle Haggard, captured the conservative backlash on two songs included here, "Okie From Muskogee" (1969) and "The Fighting Side of Me" (1970). The former, sung from the point of view of one of Nixon's "silent majority" could be perceived ironically, but the latter is pretty straightforward - Merle snarling at draft dodgers and war protesters.
Although Haggard has since distanced himself from these sentiments, both songs represent the anti-hippie feelings that had been growing at that time.
But the relationship between country and hippies wasn't all antagonistic. Some hippies were fans - like Gram Parsons. Parsons began his first group, the traditional International Submarine Band in 1968 (represented in that volume by "Luxury Liner"), briefly joined the Byrds, then hit his stride with the Flying Burrito Brothers. On their debut, the Burritos recorded an original honky-tonk ballad, "Sin City" (1969), the the following year released a cover of "Wild Horses" before the Rolling Stones' original version came out.
The fact that the Stones wrote a song like "Wild Horses" shows how country music was irresistible to many rock artists. Listening to the classics on these discs you'll understand why.