Yo-haw! Country Funk Uncovers Amazing, Unlikely Fusions
In the crudest terms, the music on Country Funk 1969–1975 is akin to the gorgeous offspring of a mixed-race couple. The 16 songs compiled by LA-based DJ Turquoise Wisdom (former Sub Pop employee Zach Cowie) bear the earthy traits of their titular genres, both somehow enhanced by their unlikely fusion. Purists of both styles may wrinkle their noses at these unholy unions, but open-minded lovers of soulful, playful funk with a tuneful twang in its trunk should be overjoyed.
Most of the artists on Country Funk remain obscure even to serious record collectors. The best-known figures (Bobbie Gentry, Link Wray, Tony Joe White, Mac Davis, and Bob Darin) had hits 40–50 years ago, but the cuts by them gathered here mostly failed to puncture mass consciousness, even though they're all killer jams that make you want to dig deeper into their respective catalogs. The less familiar musicians on Country Funk either attained cult status (Jim Ford, Bobby Charles, Larry Jon Wilson) or have gone unheard even by diligent music nerds (Gray Fox, Dennis the Fox, Cherokee, Gritz, Dale Hawkins, John Randolph Marr, Johnny Jenkins). Country Funk's roster is a mix of true Southern badasses and studio session cats, but no matter their origins or motivations, these tracks move you with unsanitized groove power.
Cowie and Light in the Attic began work on Country Funk in 2010, around when the Seattle label was preparing its storming reissue of Jim Ford's Harlan County. But Cowie's zeal for rural-urban hybrids formed in the mid '00s when he was tour-managing folks like Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart, and Vetiver. Most of those musicians, according to Cowie, are "mega record weirdos, so we'd spend any possible free time on tour digging—a favorite pastime of ours was inventing genres of lesser-known artists we were finding records by that had a similar sound. I think it was Chris Smith from Espers, or maybe Kevin Barker, who first coined this particular sound as 'country funk.' We sometimes called it 'boot cut,' too."
Another inspiration for Country Funk was James Szalapski's 1981 documentary of the outlaw country movement, Heartworn Highways, to which Howlin' Rain/Comets on Fire frontman Ethan Miller turned Cowie on 10 years ago. "I basically had that film playing on a loop for most of my early 20s," he says. "I happen to love all the music in Heartworn, but the part I always loved most was the bonus footage of everyone at the [Guy] Clark house getting wasted and playing music together. Just a bunch of friends having a good time, and I hope that's the spirit that comes across with this project."
While the concept of Country Funk initially seems strange, it's not that surprising that these interminglings arose during the years encompassed by the comp. Funk permeated nearly every crevice of the music industry from '69 to '75, and it was inevitable that country would get swept up in its irresistible force. Also, race relations among musicians were improving then, and consequently, black and white players were interacting and exchanging ideas more often.
"I honestly haven't thought much of it," Cowie admits. "I think it's safe to say that any popular genre is bound to inspire a string of cash-ins, and every so often you get a cash-in that captures a realness beyond its design, but I really wasn't thinking about any of that when putting this together. I'm a big music-history nerd, but I feel like I tend to compile more from the DJ side of my brain—music first, story second... if the music is good enough! These were just all records I loved spinning, and they shared enough aesthetic similarities to create a somewhat cohesive package."
Country Funk epitomizes Cowie's allegiance to both genres. "I love country music, but I'm also a DJ and a funk/soul/hiphop nerd. This comp satisfies a little piece of all of that—giving heavy nods to the dusty sounds I spend most of my evenings at home spinning while also packing floor-fillers that work when jamming a dance party, and there are killer drum-breaks and moments with big looping potential all over these jams, which please the hiphop side of me. This is probably all best summed up by [me] possibly being the only person on earth who has a J Dilla tattoo on one wrist and a Waylon Jennings one on the other!"
As enjoyable as Country Funk is, it does have the potential to alienate fans from both camps. Cowie muses, "I'd always envisioned this comp as the perfect Saturday afternoon barbecue record—before I quit drinking!— and last time I checked, both country fans and funk fans have Saturdays and barbecues... so let's just see what happens."
Country Funk 1969–1975 is out now on Light in the Attic, www.lightintheattic.net.