"When I was a young lad ... there used to be a chart published in the Liverpool Echo every Saturday ... Liverpool's top three.... It seemed to me at the time that Hank Williams was always at number one. And so one afternoon I went into Curry's record shop and bought a Hank Williams record."
(JP remembers an early country music purchase, 01 March 1992)
But I lived, you know, in country places – in Dallas, which is a huge place, but as country as you get, and Oklahoma City – and I kind of feel it is part of me, in a funny way.
(JP on country music, on his show of 09 July 1998)
She does pretty much like the same stuff, although she's never come to terms with country.Country music was featured in John Peel's radio programmes during much of his BBC career. As he says in the above quote, he lived in two American cities where country music had a strong following, and this experience undoubtedly had an influence on his musical taste. Growing up in Britain in the 1950s, he had become a fan of early rock and roll, which was a combination of black rhythm and blues and white country music, but like most British listeners (and musicians) he paid more attention to the blues and R&B side of the music than to the white rural tradition, which had been an equally important inspiration for performers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Although Peel's favourite British performer of the era, Lonnie Donegan, sang with a keening, nasal tone which resembled American bluegrass singing, he too was rooted in jazz and blues.
(JP on the musical tastes of wife Sheila)
Other rock and roll stars with a more obvious country background, especially the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, were influential on the development of British pop and rock in the 1960s, but the audience for country music in the UK was quite separate from the teenage public whose tastes dominated the record charts. Country music was popular with working-class listeners in Ireland, Scotland, Merseyside (the Beatles included country material in their sets) and East Anglia. Singers like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline had hit records but for the most part the music was unfashionable and largely ignored by the media.
In the US, country music was a much more successful and commercially significant genre, as Peel found when he moved to Dallas. At the same time it was often associated with the racist and illiberal attitudes of the "old South" and as such had little appeal for listeners in other areas of the States - even if country records did sometimes cross over into the pop charts. Yet this began to change with the arrival of the Beatles and the American response to the success of the "British Invasion" groups. Bands like the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful were less influenced by blues and soul music than their British contemporaries; America was still a society with deep racial divisions, so young white musicians could only hear black music on the radio and seldom ventured into black areas. Instead, they tended to focus much more on "white" music forms, including contemporary country music and the older bluegrass and old-timey styles favoured by the urban folk music revival.
Country meets rock
The leading light of the US folk revival, Bob Dylan, set an important precedent when he began to record in Nashville, the centre of commercial country music, in 1966. The next few years saw the emergence of country-rock, with many folk and folk-rock artists following his example, either by going to Nashville's recording studios or adopting country-style instrumentation or material. At the same time, American society began to polarise as a result of the Vietnam War, and while rock and folk were often vehicles for anti-war protest, country music itself became a medium for patriotic sentiments and support for the US forces in South-East Asia (many of them from the blue-collar south, country's heartland). Peel, living as he did in "Middle America", experienced these tensions at first hand. He opposed the Vietnam war and was sympathetic to the hippy culture - yet, as his British listeners were to discover, he had developed a liking for country music during his time in the USA.
In 1967 Peel became known for his Perfumed Garden show, which focused on the new music emerging at that time, combined with blues records which reflected his own taste. Country music played no part in this, although he did adopt a Texan accent on the Radio London daytime show of 17 July 1967 to comment on a country-flavoured single by the ballad singer Julie Rogers. At the BBC, he did the same thing on the Top Gear of 31 December 1967 after playing a track by the pioneering country-rock band Buffalo Springfield (whom he had introduced at a concert in San Bernardino in April 1966).
It was no surprise that Peel's programmes of 1968 reflected the British blues boom, which peaked in that year; less predictable was the inclusion of country-flavoured tracks in Top Gear. The first programme he presented alone (4 February 1968) featured Henson Cargill's single "Skip A Rope", and in subsequent programmes all of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "I'm Gonna Be A Country Girl Again" LP was played, one track per week. He also included, among other country-flavoured material, pure country singles by former rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis and the Byrds' album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". All this reflected the growth of the country-rock movement in the US but was an example of Peel being ahead of the times in the UK context, where country was still the most unfashionable of all pop music styles.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s Peel continued to feature country music on his programmes, with bands like Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the New Riders Of The Purple Sage being country-rock spin-offs from rock bands (Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Grateful Dead respectively). There was a 1970 session from rockabilly singer Buddy Knox, reflecting the revival of interest in 1950s rock and roll, and Peel played Merle Haggard's patriotic country hit "Okie From Muskogee", which took a dim view of student protests, hippies and draft-card burners. As Peel had lived in Oklahoma City he could sympathise with the "Okies", and Haggard had also recorded the original version of "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive", a song which Peel enjoyed singing, as Sheila Ravenscroft relates in Margrave of the Marshes. In the end Haggard's authenticity as a country singer won him respect with sections of the US rock audience. There was even a British variant of country rock, with bands like Matthews' Southern Comfort, Brinsley Schwarz and Starry Eyed and Laughing all doing sessions for Peel's programmes.
Back to the rootsThe mid-1970s saw country-rock achieve large-scale commercial success in the US with chart-topping albums by The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. Their styles were similar to earlier country-rock artists, but some critics felt that the music was losing its edge and becoming too smooth. The expression "hip easy listening" was coined to describe it and country artists who enjoyed mainstream success at the time, like Don Williams and Kenny Rogers, were also closer to easy listening pop than to country roots. In response to this, there was a renewed interest in older country styles which resembled the blues revival of the 1960s, with folk music scholars and young, college-educated enthusiasts listening to old records and discovering veteran performers, especially of bluegrass music. The jazz-influenced Western Swing music was revived after a period of neglect. Both bluegrass and Western Swing appeared in Peel's programmes in the second half of the 1970s, in line with his habit of including older records to contrast with the new music which comprised the bulk of his playlists. Peel preferred traditional bluegrass to the new fusions being developed by young musicians - although he did admit that his decision to play tracks from Rounder Records artists Ted Lundy, Bob Paisley and the Southern Mountain Boys was influenced by the fact that one of the musicians had the same name as the revered Liverpool FC manager.
With the advent of punk and the New Wave Peel's playlists began to change dramatically, leading to the replacement of the countryish soft-rock of the early 1970s by harder, more abrasive music styles. The Psychobilly genre owed something to country music, through (as its name suggests) its offshoot rockabilly, but it was far removed from the country mainstream. The most country-oriented of the New Wave performers was Elvis Costello, who took the plain-speaking directness of country songs as a model for his own songwriting and eventually recorded a tribute album of country hits in Nashville. The "outlaw" movement in country music, headed by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and rejecting the strait-laced Bible Belt morality of many of their peers, was a sign that things were changing, even in the conservative southern states. Although Peel paid little attention to it, his new Radio One colleague Andy Kershaw was enthusiastic about American roots music in general and featured plenty of country in his shows.
Cowpunks, Americana and a new all-time favourite
While Peel was happy to leave most of the newer country artists to Kershaw, at Radio One the two DJs shared an office with their producer John Walters and became firm friends. They shared similar tastes in many areas of music and Kershaw's willingness to include old-timey, bluegrass, honky-tonk and 1950s and 1960s Nashville records in his playlists had an influence on Peel's later programmes. At the same time the movement known as Cowpunk had emerged in the US, bringing in its wake artists who would appear, either on record or in session, on the programmes of Peel and Kershaw.
In the 1990s, Kershaw continued to feature country artists who distanced themselves from Nashville commercialism - the Texans Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore did sessions for his shows, as did Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith, The work of these artists was sometimes described as Americana, a form of music first identified in the 1990s which encompassed a wide range of artists ranging from folk singers to rock'n'rollers, all of them with a connection to American roots music. Peel's colleague Bob Harris became a specialist in Americana, broadening the scope of Radio 2's country programme as a result. He still attracted criticism of his musical selections from Peel, who nonetheless remained a regular listener to the show. Harris featured the latest releases from Nashville's Music Row, but Peel concentrated on older records, playing Hank Williams and the rediscovered Johnny Cash. He also paid tribute to the recently deceased Charlie Rich - another country star who made his name in the early rock'n'roll era - on 28 July 1995.In the late 1990s and early 2000s Peel's shows began to include sessions from female artists, many of them American and with a folk or country background. Among them was Laura Cantrell, a Nashville-born singer whose first album Not The Tremblin' Kind he praised repeatedly and highly, describing it at one point as his favourite album of all time. Cantrell, who had studied and worked in high-level jobs in New York, was not a "pure" country singer in the traditional sense, but her music was strongly influenced by the country styles of the 1950s and 1960s. She became a regular session guest on Peel's shows, prompting him to dig out records from his own collection and thereby ensuring that country music remained on his playlists in his final years.
Following the DJ's death, an Al Ferrier single featuring "Don't Play 'Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain'" was found in John Peel's Record Box. After playing it at Peel Acres on 23 December 2003, with Cantrell in attendance, Peel had commented: "Now that's what I call a country song."
Peel was a great lover of unusual cover versions. His mix CD FabricLive.07 featured both a country-style version of Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' by the Bad Livers and a similar Sex Pistols cover by the Kingswoods, re-titled 'Purty Vacant'.
On 18 August 1998 he played a Cuban Boys version of the Flatts & Scruggs instrumental 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown'. The song had been previously covered in a more orthodox style by Tim Rose in a 1968 session (see 11 August 1968).