The Form of Country Music

I enjoy country music… sometimes.  Even calling myself a dilletante of the genre would be an exaggeration.  I started listening to it when I worked on the Hill.  My usual classical station would put me to sleep after lunch… pop music risked being inappropriate to the office.  Country’s positive lyrics and pep kept me awake in the mid afternoon.  I only mention this to highlight what an ear-opening experience this morning was.  Scanning the Post’s style section I found an article  about Sam Hunt’s new album “Montevallo.”  The glowing album review is typical in many ways, but for this:

“The 29-year-old is a fine-grain storyteller who knows how to roll, bounce, massage and leap-frog syllables in speedy, nuanced bursts. His most emotive verses toggle between singing and speech, locating a previously undiscovered sweet spot between Conway Twitty and Drake.”

The author, Chris Richards hits on a key principle of western aesthetics: the relationship between form and matter.  Super quick: form is the other-worldly ideal of a thing… the heavenly perfection of what we wish a thing could be.  Matter is the stuff (paint, clay, bricks, words, sound) that we on earth form into art.  A thing is beautiful insofar as its form shines through its material reality. (see Saward, John. “The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty.” for more)

Musically, think of a spectrum between pure form and pure matter; the form being pure melody, the matter being words without music.  Playing around inside this spectrum has yielded some of our great treasures. Opera leans heavily toward the melodic; sometimes to the point of “bending” bending words to suit melodies.  Epic poetry (Homer, Dante, et al) relies on the lilting patterns of words and their syllables to provide a music-less melody simply by pronunciation.

Mr. Richards seems to have stumbled on this philosophy lesson in Mr. Hunt’s latest album.  It’s not an altogether new concept.  Rex Harrison was famed for “musical speech” in “My Fair Lady,” because – as Harrison confessed – he couldn’t really carry a tune (e.g. I’ve grown accustomed to her face).

I’m not sure if “Montevallo” will make a country convert out of me.. I’m not going out to buy boots just yet… but even as I type I can’t stop listening to the music’s wonderful interplay of form and matter.  Today, keep your eyes peeled and ears open to form shining through matter… you may find it opens you to new forms of art and makes life just a little more heavenly.