Saturday, 23 May 2009
An evening with Hank and Reg
Why are so many otherwise courteous people provoked to a sneer by the mention of country and western music? So they don't like it - who says they should? It can't be the false view of history or the occasional emotional excess - the people who sneer at country music are often happy to praise Madame Butterfly and Turandot or the operas of Handel and Wagner.
I'm not a fan or an expert on country music but for years I've felt uncomfortable about the sneers it receives. It's not just about disliking the music; people who dislike other kinds of music (free form jazz, punk, string quartets) are able to say so without a sneer. If challenged, the sneerers may say that country music is too simple and too direct as though simplicity and directness were faults. Or they say that it's a conservative genre. Many genres are predominantly conservative; if that's the case with country music, it also gave voice to a number of radicals from Woody Guthrie to k.d. lang.
Country music - like the western novel and film - is a large, baggy genre which allows its creators, performers and audiences to interpret it as they choose. It's also accessible and the majority of its fans in Britain are probably working-class. I suspect class is what causes the sneer. Country fans are knows to have a good time - sometimes they dress up and dance. Their pleasure doesn't need intellectual interpretation; intellectuals and critics struggle to find complex words to account for simple directness. It's easier to say that country music is beneath criticism than to admit that it may be beyond the critic's capacities.
I was hesitant about attending a concert by Hank Wangford and Reg Meuross. It was at a small local school theatre which doubles as a community theatre and cinema. I'd heard of Hank Wangford - I think I heard him on the radio decades ago - and that meant he must be famous. I didn't know what to expect but thought I might go - to support the theatre and extend my knowledge. "Hank Wangford's allright," the sneerers said. "He doesn't take country music seriously."
But making jokes about country music isn't the same as sneering at it. Hank Wangford knows the history of couintry music and treats it with respect as well as humour. He treats his audience in the same way - we're in on the joke and enjoy the music.
Reg Meuross was an unfamiliar name. At the beginning of the concert he was silent between songs, as though he was there simply to support the more famous Hank. But gradually he began to introduce songs - as Hank put it, "the spotlight of fame" turned to him. I instantly warmed to his stillness on stage, his quiet sense of humour, his love of history, the songs he wrote and his high tenor voice. There's a cross of folk with country music, which is as it should be - genres don't stay still but evolve in relation to one another. Reg's voice blended wonderfully with Hank's and he shone in solos.
I haven't suddenly remade myself as a country and western fan - I'm still listening to opera, folk, jazz, string quartets and the Beetles. But I've found Hank and Reg's music on-line and am planning to add some of their songs to my MP3 player when I've worked out how to buy them online. First choice from Hank is "Lonely Together", a witty and self-aware song about misery in a relationship. And I don't know how many times I've played Reg's song "Worry no more" - it's definitely a song I want to take with me when travelling.
I'm so glad I spent that evening with Hank and Reg. I wonder if they'll be visiting again.