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An Outsider’s Guide To Country Music: With Hayley McLean & Dario Cortese

A Canadian star and an extraordinary Italian guitarist share their passion for country music and shatter the Nashville myths that scare off so many guitarists.

Tuesday, 2. July 2013  -  by  David Hayter

Country music has exploded in popularity in the last decade. What was once a distinctly North American obsession has sprawled across the Atlantic and infected both the European mainstream and the avant-garde extreme.

The warped machinations of Alt-Country were immediately embraced. The emerging genre’s blend of raw instrumentation and sorrowful-but-still-earnest lyricism struck a chord in post-recession Europe. The contrast between the rustic, comfort of country and macabre overtones of indie silenced the sceptics and allowed the likes of Gillian Welch and Daughn Gibson to sell out tour after tour on this side of the Atlantic.

The artistic fringe may have made easy in-roads, but it wasn’t until the last couple of years that the genre’s modern superstars started to make an impact. 2013’s Country 2 Country tour saw an unprecedented 40,000 country fans descend on London for performances by Carrie Underwood and Darius Rucker.

Still, for many fans the mere mention of country music causes eyes to roll. Whether it’s the fiddles, the faith or pick-up trucks, there’s something about the genre and its stalwarts that makes those outside of the country fraternity (especially guitar nuts) shudder.

The country scene produces too much great music and is home to too many great players to be dismissed so readily. In an attempt to win over the sceptics and better understand the genre, Guitar Planet is going to pick the brains of two country obsessed Nashville outsiders who fell in love with the genre from afar.

Hayley is a Canadian country star and a hell of a guitarist. She was named Fender’s definitive Guitar Goddess in January and far from growing up on a ranch, she was raised on the water and is a former member of Canada’s national sailing team.

Dario Cortese is a guitarist, instructor and general country mastermind who has worked with everyone from Albert Lee to Larry Carlton. A native Italian and a guitar obsessive, Dario was drawn to country music despite living thousands of miles away from Nashville and country radio.

Today they’re going to help Guitar Planet get to the bottom of the country sound and its growing appeal.

Hayley, You certainly don’t have the traditional raised-in-the-shadow of Nashville, country background: so when did you realize this very specific style of music was for you?

It was the guitar playing. When I was in high school, I heard some Brad Paisley. My friend had it on and I was like “What is that style of playing?” I’d heard a bit of it through The Eagles, they had those steel bends, but I had never really heard it the way Brad played before - so I really started to dig deeper into that sound.

I discovered what his influences were. Uncovered Albert Lee and it opened up a whole new world for me.

The other part that made me want to do it, was the song writing. Because you can write something that is just an honest lyric: it’s face value, and that’s how I like to write, the words just come out of me that way.

So is that what you most enjoy, the direct nature of the lyricism?

Yeah, exactly! I can write something specific to me and you could just read it out and it would make sense to anyone.


Dario as a session guitarist and teacher by trade, how would you define the country sound and what makes it distinctive?

Dario CorteseThere are many things that help make the country sound so distinctive. The lyrics, the sounds used, the way songs are organized, the way they are produced, and even the accent of the singers. These elements all contribute to what we recognize as country music.

From a guitar perspective it is that tangy tone combined with many unique techniques that guitarists use that makes it very recognizable.

One of my favourite aspects of the country guitar work is how easy and relaxed it can sound – conjuring that image of kicking back and taking it all in.

Dario CorteseCountry guitar is actually a very demanding style. The first thing to say is that is not a new style. It’s a style that has been around for many years and has always been commercially successful. This has resulted in a huge number of records produced and the consequence of that is that people started looking for better tones and/or better players in order to make their record stand out. This has driven the guitar world to new highs.

In the search for an extra edge, over the years, guitarists have been inspired by the other instruments typical of country music: piano, fiddle, banjo, pedal steel, etc. This has resulted in the development of many unique techniques typical of this style such as banjo rolls or pedal steel imitation bends.

So what would you say are the crucial techniques for the aspiring country guitarist to master?

Dario CorteseI’m not sure there’s such a thing as an essential technique for country. Many would probably think of the famous ‘chicken picking’ technique but I don’t think it deserves a priority.

Each country guitarist will have their own area of expertise. Some have achieved an astonishing degree of accuracy in emulating the sound of a pedal steel guitar whereas others have been successfully developing a more pianist approach based on double stops.

If you are approaching country for the first time my suggestion would be to develop a basic understanding of all the available techniques and then later to focus on the one technique that is more fun to use.

After all, don’t we all do this to have some fun?

Hayley, what makes a record country, is it a series of techniques or more about atmosphere and upbringing?

You know it’s funny if you sit in a session nowadays the guys will always be chuckling about how if “you put a steel guitar or a fiddle on it” it’ll becomes a country song.

I do think country is a cultural thing. It’s about where you are and what’s important to you, but a huge part of it is also the instrumentation and the lyrics.

Country is about a straight-ahead line that makes plain sense. The more a lyric cuts straight to the bone, the better and more country a record will become.

However, it is true that you put a steel guitar on a pop song and it starts to sound country. Put the right instruments on a Katy Perry song and some people would argue that you’d have a country song.

In terms of the culture it’s about resource based living and family. Those are huge themes that run throughout country music, and I’m lucky that those happen to be the most important things to me. If I’m going to go out on a night, I’m going to prefer to go out somewhere in the country or on the water, with my friends and family, and that encompasses it all really.

You see when I listen to an artist like Vince Gill I hear a lot of bar-room flavour, some boogie, a touch of rockabilly, but when I think about what makes his music, country, I comeback to tone and atmosphere.

Is it fair to think of country in this way or am I missing the genre’s distinctive technical aspects?

Dario CorteseThere are many things that make Vince Gill a country artist. Some are guitar related but most of them are not. Again, lyrics, song structure, arrangements, accent, all have a massive role in making Vince Gill’s music country and not something else.

From a guitar perspective his tone and playing is mostly country - sometimes very bluesy, but mostly country. The way Vince (like many other fantastic country players) bends strings for instance is very mechanical. This is done to emulate the pedal steel guitar. A blues player or a rock player would probably bend the strings differently.

Another element is the note choice. Harmonically, rock or blues players tend to play simpler lines often based on pentatonic. Country guitarists can be quite adventurous at times using almost as many chromaticisms as jazz players. By saying this I’m not implying that this make them better or worst. I’m simply highlighting what I think are differences in playing styles.

Country music has expanded rapidly over the years from something inherently humble, warm and local in flavour to be as big as the most extravagant prog rock show.

as the current generation of arena headlining country stars (like a Brad Paisley) developed a distinct playing and soloing style for these giant global album and shows?

Dario CorteseBrad Paisley is a very good example.

At the beginning of his career his albums were filled with lots of burning guitar solos. The type of solos that make guitarists go: “Sorry, what the hell did you just play?”. The type of solo you can hear in honky tonk bars like Roberts, on Nashville’s Broadway.

On his latest albums he has developed a slightly different type of solo. A bit more gain, longer notes, more lyrical, more emotional - a style more suitable for big arenas.

I think one of the worries guitarists have when tackling country music is that they’ll always be dealing with the cultural tropes of a place that’s distant and alien to them.

So Hayley, as a Canadian country star you seem like the perfect person to ask, is it easy to express a sense of regional identity within the confines of the country aesthetic?

I’d say so. A lot of country songs out there are about the fields and the outdoors, and I didn’t grow up on the farm, I grew up on the water. But I was still raised in a resource-based family and my surroundings have had a huge impact on how I’ve evolved. I grew up on a boat essentially, learning how to play guitar there, it really shaped how I sound now.

I love expansive country soundscapes but I’m into so many different genres. The most difficult question is always who is your favourite band because I’m into so many different styles. I write country and I love it, but I’ve been listening to a ton of Lana Del Rey in my spare time. When I’m not working on my records, I take a breather to work on something entirely different.

I like to do these big orchestral soundscapes with all sorts of lyrical guitars and that tends to come out and express itself in my music.

Now Hayley and Dario you’re both ferocious guitarists in your own right, do you find it easy to express yourself as a player within the confines of country music?

Dario CorteseCountry music can appear restrictive. For instance most of the time you have a set length for a solo, you have a harmony to follow and it needs to be appealing to a specific type of audience. This could be considered negatively, as a limitation, but it can also be used to draw out more musicality.

The fact that you have only a few bars for a solo might force you to use it better. Or the fact that it needs to be appealing to a bigger audience might make you play more musically. I don’t think it is the style that creates limitations; it’s just how we see them.

Nowadays country is so broad. The days of country having to be a shuffle about trucks and popping a beer is over – there are still plenty of songs like that, but you don’t have to fit into that box.

Especially with Alt-Country, some of the best country artists are fantastic players, and it really opens the door for me to let loose on the guitar. But at the end of the day I always try to ensure that everything that I’m doing is something that I personally enjoy. So I’m not doing anything to please someone else or to fit into a certain box.

There’s going to be plenty of cool guitar stuff on my new record. We did a cover of “Radar Love” where we go crazy on guitar and I don’t know how country that is, but it speaks to me, and that’s the most important thing. The doors are pretty wide open.

So can we expect some solos and expressive playing on your new record?

There will be lots of guitar work. Not all of it is crazy guitars solos, I love doing that, but my favourite players are the one who play parts and hooks and melodies that really stick with you. I play all of the guitars on the record, electric and acoustic, and there will be all kinds of playing for all kinds of people.

There’s so much you can convey emotionally with riff or a hook that’s made by the guitar and for me that’s just a natural way to express myself.

Is country more welcoming than it was in the past? There was always a fear that if you were from Europe and you tried to make a country record you would be met with a Nashville backlash.

Well I feel that it is, because I’d be selling myself short and doing a disservice to my creativity if I tried to fit into that creative box. I guess I kind of lucked out, because I love the science of that earworm of a hook that works behind a song and before I became a performer and I was just doing backing vocals, I thought I wanted to be a producer.

I wanted to make really obnoxiously catchy pop songs for the rest of my life. So that whole aspect draws me. I don’t really know what a radio expert would say, but country music has always been good to me and allowed me to create and express what I feel without a backlash.

Dario CorteseCountry music has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and it’s still changing. The whole music business has changed, not just country music. Nowadays the driving market is the pre-teens. That is the demographic that buys the records, buys the merchandise and goes to concerts. This has made country music more and more pop.

In terms of location, yes, Nashville is still the place for country music, but there is lots of amazing country music done in Texas or California but Nashville is still the driving force.

One of the aspects of country that’s most refreshing is how prevalent and important female artists have been to the genre since its inception.

In rock and metal female artists are still treated as a rare breed and everything from interviews to reviews are viewed through the prism of their sex.

Is country less obsessed with gender or have I just got a rose tinted view of the genre?

I think you’re definitely right. It’s less genre obsessed. When there’s a female artist it’s not like “Wow you’re a female, that’s weird, and you’re writing and playing guitar”. It doesn’t really happen, but there’s still a bias. If you look statistically a lot more male artists get played on the radio.

I think it’s close to 90%, but it’s still not shocking to find a woman playing country music, especially compared to say metal.

Finally, If you could recommend a record to win over the sceptical rock fan to the potential of country music, what would you pick and why?

Oooh I’ll have to think about this. It’s funny I’m thinking about this kind of question all the time because a lot of my friends are like: “ugh…country music that’s all pick-up trucks etc”. I get that point of view and I totally understand people’s pessimism. In country music, like in any genre, there’s stuff that’s honest and there’s stuff that’s not. There’s music that’s manufactured and music that’s not, but you have to be able to develop an ear to shift through it all.

The old country music is so great. All music fans would agree that Johnny Cash made music that’s just timeless and true – but for now, because we were talking about women in country, I’m going to pick Miranda Lambert’s Four The Record.

It’s one of those records where everyone should be able to find a track that they might not love, but they’d really understand. Miranda makes really twangy country, it’s not the pop Keith Urban stuff, and I think it’s a proper representation of great country music.

Dario CorteseOne of my all time favourites is Brent Mason’s “Hot Wired”. It has a lot of elements that I like about country music. It’s got the wow factor first of all. It’s got a rocky intro, it requires great technique (playing at that tempo on a clean sound is for heroes), it’s got the bluesy-ness (it’s basically a modified blues structure), it’s got some jazz (listen to the lines they play over those changes), it’s got a funky element (listen to the double stop lines!). Basically there are lots of great things about it.

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