Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #123: Country Pie

I was sorely tempted to just post live videos of "Country Pie", much like I did for the "Nashville Skyline Rag" post, but it was probably pushing it to do it the one time. Besides, Lord knows that there are times where I have to dig deep to find things to talk about with some of these tunes; "Nashville Skyline Rag" really doesn't inspire much outside of "hey, an instrumental", so it seemed better to just have a little bit of fun. "Country Pie", essentially, serves the same function as "NSR" does; a lighthearted piece of music, essentially the equivalent of what you'd play at a hoedown or hootenanny or some other word for country-music dance, and a bookend for the end of the album the same way that other song works as bookend for the start. The major difference is that "Country Pie" has lyrics, which allows it to fall in for more scrutiny, certainly way more than it deserves. "NSR", just a quick two-minute banjo showcase, ultimately gets taken off the hook. "Country Pie", which might as well be an instrumental for the depth of its lyrics (although "Lil' Jack Horner got nothing on me" is worth a smile), doesn't get let off that easy.

This is stepping on something I'd like to get into more in-depth down the line, but one of the topics Greil Marcus gets into in his infamous review of Self Portrait is the idea of Dylan's past work giving him the freedom of creativity. As Marcus puts it, Dylan basically created an entire legend out the body of work he created between 1965 and 1966, music that "defined and structured a crucial year" - you would think Dylan's tremendous acoustic work beforehand would fit in to that legend as well, but never mind. And, by dint of that legend, Dylan basically has been afforded the privilege of being able to record whatever he wants to, essentially trading on the goodwill afforded him from his previous work, regardless of whether or not it has any merit. To quote again, he "doesn't have to do good, because he has done good. One wonders...how long he can get away with it". And while he's not talking about Nashville Skyline, you can certainly imagine him tossing it in along with the rest of Dylan's "disappointing" post-1966 output (it'd be nice to ask 1970 Marcus what he thought of John Wesley Harding, but that would probably bring on another judgmental rant, so perhaps it's best that can never happen). Songs like "Country Pie", a little lark to say the least, probably don't help matters.

Now, I can certainly fill up an entire post talking about this little bit of sermonizing Marcus saw fit to give us (to be fair, it was a different time that Marcus wrote that in), but I'd prefer to save that and just concentrate on this one song, one that I happen to like and consider a fun ol' time. A song like this one, surely, would be considered by 1970 Marcus to be another instance of trading on goodwill, Dylan simply having himself a goof because he can. And, of course, he's absolutely right. To which the obvious rejoinder, one that you might actually have in your mind right now, is "so what?" The great thing about those fantastic albums, the ones that made Dylan the man that he was in 1969, was that they didn't have any ambitions of turning Dylan into some sort of Greek god or giving him a reputation as Jesus with a six-string (and the fact that they did clearly made him uncomfortable); you never got the feeling that Dylan set out to deliberately make music that would cause the earth to move. And those albums had their share of less-than-amazing music, like all classic albums do - not to mention songs clearly meant to put a smile on the listener's face like "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" or "Absolutely Sweet Marie". Dylan has a sense of humor about himself, and a showman's desire to entertain. "Country Pie" showcases both of those traits, but does it in a more direct way, and thus is not worthy of praise. I don't see how that works.

One of the more surprising moments of Dylan's latter-day touring career was in around 2000 or so, when for whatever reason "Country Pie" started getting semi-regular airings on stage. Usually clocking in at a brisk 2 and a half minutes or so, the song generally works as a chance for the band to strut its stuff (Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, in particular, get to whip up some fiery guitar solo) and get the audience movin' and groovin'. Not only is that a cool thing - it's not exactly as though Dylan's catalog is chock full of dance songs - but it illustrates what a song like "Country Pie" can be under the right circumstances. I've written any number of words about Nashville Skyline being an album that shows that Dylan can appeal to our heart and feet, just as much as he could appeal to our brain. To close this post out, I think I'll let Dylan and His Band do the work for me.

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6 comments:

Rob said...

hmm ... not impressed by that live version, at least not from watching BD sleepwalk his way trough it and give it a thoroughly lame final flourish.

DanG said...

"The major difference is that Country Pie has lyrics, which allows it to fall in for more scrutiny, certainly way more than it deserves."

Calls to mind overthinkingit.com

Pete said...

What Marcus missed was that his own expectations themselves limited Dylan's "freedom of creativity." Nashville was, I think, designed to beat back the crowd and give the man elbow room. This may not have been entirely conscious, but I think he's still doing it -- Modern Times was a "big statement" but Together (which I like) seems to me to be a holding action whose main statement is that statements are optional.

Reinaldo Garcia said...

The live performance not only redeems the song, it gives the lie to the assertion that Dylan's sweet vocal style served the material better. Had this song been on THE BASEMENT TAPES, it would have been praised as a paean to rural life, rather than scorned as a piece of puffery.

Anonymous said...

the song's a double entendre, tony. concentrate on the first syllable and then imagine those yummy "country" colors and flavors. oh me oh my love that . . .

which one do you prefer to taste?

Rob said...

Which first syllable? So, he's singing about wanting to have sex with "country" girls? Or just with his wife, the bearer of his young brood?