("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
I know what you're thinking. Bob Dylan? Everybody knows that Dylan is folk, or rock. What am I doing covering him on a country music website?
Nashville Skyline is widely seen as Dylan's "country" album. While Dylan began to introduce country elements into his music with 1967's John Wesley Harding, it was this album that represented his true foray into the genre. While hardly anyone would categorize this album as being among Dylan's best work, it is a great album in its own right. And given that Bob has been in the news a lot lately due to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought now was as good a time as any to cover him.
Fans have been debating what country music is and what it should sound like probably for as long as the concept of "country music" has existed. Between the Nashville Sound and Chet Atkins, the outlaw backlash, the Urban Cowboy fad, the neotraditional movement, the Garth/Shania boom years, "Murder on Music Row", the rise of alt-country and Americana, Taylor Swift winning Entertainer of the Year, "old farts and jackasses", the emergence of bro-country, the out-of-nowhere success of Chris Stapleton and all the other notable events and eras, I'm sure you've heard all the arguments and back-and-forths by now. At this point, rehashing this whole debate is not beating a dead horse, it's exhuming the body and lighting it on fire. But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to give my thoughts on this subject.
I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is, "What exactly is country music?" The biggest issue surrounding this whole debate is that there's no official, objective criteria that determines what is or isn't country. It's not like a deity has descended from the heavens to inscribe the one true definition of country music onto a stone tablet, nor have scientists discovered a new theorem that can be used to irrefutably prove whether a piece of music is or isn't country. Webster and Wikipedia are vague, and talk more about country music's influences and places of origin than what it actually sounds like. Ultimately, it seems people's conceptions of country music vary depending on when they were born, what music they've been exposed to, and what they like.
When a veteran mainstream artist is inevitably cast aside from radio and their time in the spotlight is finished, they generally respond in one of two different ways. Some become dramatically less active in recording new music and release new albums only sporadically. A few even retire altogether. On the flip side, others record with newfound vigor, enlivened by the freedom to record without the need to kowtow to commercial pressures. '70s honky-tonker Gene Watson undoubtedly falls within the latter category. Despite not having anything even resembling a hit since the late '80s, he has quietly released a string of highly worthwhile albums over the past two decades to a small but dedicated fanbase. His 2016 release, the fittingly titled Real. Country. Music., continues that trend, and will almost certainly be among the better traditional country records released this year.
While never a household name, Gene Watson has a reputation among erudite country fans as being among the most talented and underrated vocalists in the genre's history. While evaluating the likability of a singer's voice is always an exercise in extreme subjectivity, I think this reputation is well-deserved. Watson's multi-octave tenor and well-honed interpretive skills compel me to describe him as one of traditional country's finest practitioners. And Watson's voice has held up amazingly well for a man in his early 70s. Indeed, he sounds virtually identical to the way he did on classic tracks from his prime like "Farewell Party" and "Love in the Hot Afternoon."