This article is from 2008.
As a posse of spoof country and western acts rides towards the Fringe, Allan Radcliffe asks why songs about rednecks, guns and erections make for sublime comedy
Country and western can lay claim to the dubious honour of being simultaneously the best loved and most disparaged of popular music forms. While the genre retains a huge and fanatical following in its native US and internationally, critics deride the tradition for its trite sentimentality, pouring scorn on its exponents for endlessly whining about poverty, marital strife and liberals in Washington trying to wrest the guns out of their hands.
Indeed, ever since country music ventured down from the Appalachian Mountains, there has been an equally dynamic parallel movement of performers mining the genre’s rich comic potential. As early as the 1930s, country comedian Benjamin Francis ‘Whitey’ Ford (aka the Duke of Paducah) was entertaining listeners to NBC’s Plantation Party with his catchphrase ‘I’m goin’ back to the wagon, boys, these shoes are killin’ me!’ Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon’s stage alter ego, Minnie Pearl, known for wearing an oversized Stetson with the price tag still hanging from it, became a household favourite in the 60s and 70s thanks to her appearances on the popular US variety show, Hee Haw. Fast-forward to the noughties and there’s a web page called ‘the famous country & western song machine’, where bored office workers can spend hours generating random lyrics for country songs.
The Minnie Pearl de nos jours (albeit via the medium of cross dressing and with a shade more profanity thrown in) is Tina C, nine-times Grammy Award-winning country music idol from Open Throat Holler, Tennessee and purveyor of such genre classics as ‘No Dick’s as Hard as My Life’. As Christopher Green, the performing virtuoso behind everyone’s favourite Rhinestone Cowgirl, points out, a genre that can spawn lines such as ‘Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed’ could never be accused of lacking a sense of humour. ‘Country music has always had humour built into it. That’s why any act has to celebrate country music and not run it down. I also think – whether it’s conscious or not – everyone likes to flirt with the fine line between sentimentality and comedy, and country easily slides between the two.’
That said, the spoof C&W performer is not just an elaborate means of mocking an already much-derided genre of music. Like most character comedians, performers like Green use the cover of their larger-than-life other self to make insightful social and political points. Indeed, Tina’s latest album, Tick My Box, is being used to promote her campaign for the 2008 US presidential elections, and features the hit singles, ‘I’m Gonna Scrub Your Neck Til It’s Red’ and ‘Barack Rhymes With Iraq/McCain’s Not Able’.
Perhaps the least subtle example of this practice is Rich Hall as Otis Lee Crenshaw, curling his raspy inflection around the couplet ‘Let’s all get together/And kill George Bush’. When asked how American audiences respond to his not only lampooning their cherished musical heritage but also savaging their head of state, Hall has said he believes comedy audiences are generally aware of what to expect from his act, regardless of their provenance. ‘I haven’t been heckled a lot. I don’t think I’ve had anyone stand up and tell me they didn’t like what I was saying.’
Despite hailing from Virginia, and graduating from the Saturday Night Live repertory of comedians, Hall has enjoyed a large measure of success in the UK, particularly with Otis Lee who scooped the Perrier Award back in 2000. Hall’s 2004 book of Crenshaw’s memoirs I Blame Society has been adapted for the screen and is about to be filmed by the British comedian-turned-director Mel Smith. Hall himself remains fairly ambivalent about his character’s musical genre of choice: he nominated country and western music as one of his pet dislikes when he appeared on Room 101.
So, is today’s spoof country and western act a conceit mainly served up to confirm non-American audiences’ prejudices about the United States and its culture? Christopher Green believes that the reaction of any audience to Tina C will be dictated by the relationship that audience has with America. ‘The Tina character is constructed as an outsider, an American in a non-American environment,’ he says. ‘This makes it tricky in the States, where I have to be an outsider in a non-Nashville environment. This will all fall apart when I go to Nashville. I want to make a documentary about taking Tina to Nashville; it could be explosive!’
Wilson Dixon, the country legend from Cripple Creek, Colorado, feels American audiences’ reaction to his act is no different to their reaction to any other flavour of musical performance. ‘Sometimes it’s projectiles and cuss words,’ he says. ‘Other times it’s bewildered indifference. I definitely prefer the former; it gives you something to play with and/or duck. Americans generally react with sustained whooping and cheering which is way out of proportion with the thing they’re actually experiencing. Any viewers of Letterman will know what I’m talking about.’
With Otis Lee Crenshaw growling his way into a disgraceful old age, and Tina C taking her unique brand of gingham-clad performance all the way to DC, surely the great attraction of country music as a basis for comedy, is that – mirroring the longevity of bona fide performers such as Kenny and Dolly – there’s no pressure to pension off your creation. So, will we see Tina C, nipped, tucked, high of hair and full of bosom, strutting her stuff onstage in her 60s?
‘I skilfully have my pensioner character, Ida Barr, that I can do when I’m old,’ says Green. ‘Tina is pretty and that’s hard work so I may tire of it, but there is her emotional album about not having children, called Barren Country, to stage yet; so there are no plans to retire her. And, of course, we have to follow her progress through a term in the White House.’
Wilson Dixon, The Stand III & IV, 558 7272, 1–24 Aug (not 11), 6pm, £8.50 (£7.50). Preview 31 Jul, £7.50 (£6.50);
Otis Lee Crenshaw, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 3–25 Aug (not 11), 9.20pm, £14–£16 (£12.50–£14.50). Previews until 2 Aug, £11;
Tina C, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 0844 545 8252, 2–25 Aug (not 11), 10.20pm, £12.50–£14.50 (£11–£13). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £8.