My favorite country record is probably by the Magnetic Fields, so I am not necessarily the best person to ask if you’re looking for the real and true stuff, the kind of music released from the depths of the Earth when a rockslide in the Guadalupe Mountains uncovers an ancient cave. But I do know what I like: straightforward lonesomeness and a hint of swagger, the kind of ironic self-confidence required to be sad in public.
Lately, to sate this urge, I’ve been turning to celebrated Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb, whose gentle vocal style epitomizes calm restraint. Though Tubb did once attempt to settle an argument with a producer with a loaded pistol, he wasn’t an outlaw in the country-western genre sense, predating those fellows by a good 20 years. Nor was he a smooth and polished crooner. He sounds, well, not fatherly exactly, but knowing and wise. Approachable and yet slightly outside the boundaries of hearth and home. More like one of your parents’ friends, perhaps, telling stories at a Christmas party after your bedtime.
In particular I’ve been listening to an old copy of “The Legend and the Legacy,” a sort of best-of collection salted with famous guests: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, George Jones — the list goes on. I was surprised to learn that it was originally intended as just the first volume of a series that never got off the ground due to underperformance. Granted, compilations like this might not be very exciting today, when one can usually go right to the source and listen to whatever classic record happens to come to mind, but this was 1979. I suppose Tubb’s honky-tonk style was not in vogue at the time.
But today this record, with its who’s-who of featured musicians legendary in their own right, has something of the feel of those American Recordings that Johnny Cash made with producer Rick Rubin. Not the late-career melancholy perhaps (and not the reclamation of unexpected covers), but there is a shared sense of celebration and well-deserved kudos. Bumbling newcomers like me might not be equipped to appreciate it, but clearly the people who made the record were, and we can benefit from their attention.
One of the things about a classic record is that, as much as it is timeless, it is also always being discovered anew. I suspect most of the people reading this have some of these songs tucked away in their collection somewhere already, but for those who don’t, I can only point and announce that this is, in fact, the real and true thing.
• Simon Sizer is the legal and obituary clerk at the Yakima Herald-Republic. He’s constantly prattling on about music, so we gave him this column.