Norway is the fifty-first state in the USA. Imported mass culture is glorified and admired and not at all “norsified”. A Norwegian cowboy in Norway is more of a cowboy than his cousin in Nashville or Houston. Why? Because we are in Norway.
Roots dominates Norwegian popular music. “Roots,” said the MC at last year's Norwegian Grammy awards, "is country & western for those who don't dare to admit they like country & western". Roots is therefore a new, urban concept created by music-lovers in the larger towns. C & W, on the other hand, has flourished in the Norwegian countryside since the first gramophones. For once, town and country are united.
“We are a country without a capital,” says a Norwegian sociologist. “The people who invented the Norwegian identity could not use the capital for anything. The city was Danish; the bourgeoisie and the nobility were imported. So when our forefathers met to find the essence of our nationality, they could not look to the cities, and had to search elsewhere.”
Today, “elsewhere” consists of small, rural townships. They have one street containing socially useful institutions, usually gathered in a “centre”. Close by live families with fathers who commute to work and mothers in some kind of part-time job. The youngsters live in their cars on the country roads or try to impress each other at the central parking lot. They long to get away, because young people always do. But in small Norwegian towns, they don't long for the national capital, which isn't a proper metropolis. They long for the USA.
In a Norwegian Peyton Place you will find typical Norwegians. The biggest compliment a Norwegian can pay is to say that something is “cosy”. What a cosy life we lead in our privately owned homes, where everything revolves around Family and Work! There are strong similarities with the WASP ideals. When flickering pictures from satellite dishes describe a different American reality, a black, rhythmic pulse, this is alien. A real American will always remain round and jovial - and preferably wear a cowboy hat.
Although Davy Crockett was one of the biggest Norwegian hits of the 50s, the origin of the collective Norwegian infatuation with C & W can be dated to spring 1964, when Nashville invaded Oslo and Jim Reeves, Bobby Bare, the Anita Kerr Singers and Chet Atkins were on TV. The country was never the same again. It is true that we “shook” to the Beatles, but it was Jim Reeves who totally dominated the charts and the sole radio station. I Love You Because topped the charts for thirteen consecutive weeks, to be replaced by only one week of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night before Gentleman Jim crooned I Won't Forget You from the number one spot for a further nine weeks.
“This was in television's childhood, when all forms of popular culture had low priority. The Nashville concert was a clear break with this tradition and had consequences to match.” Veteran music writer Arve Strømsaether remembers the concert, which was dubbed “legendary” and was broadcast as a “request repeat” innumerable times.
The 50s and 60s were also the golden age of the Norwegian merchant fleet. Apart from foreign radio stations, seamen's music was the primary channel for impulses from the outside world. Looking back to his childhood in the 60s, Norway's most popular artist, Steinar Albrigtsen, re-members: “It was great when the seamen came ashore with souvenirs and new records. They mostly brought country music, like Bobby Bare, Skeeter Davis and Loretta Lynn. This was music with a story, a soul. It spoke directly to our emotions. The fact that it came from far away and was brought here by seamen intensified many of the dreams and longings expressed in the songs.” Today, Albrigtsen is cowboy-in-chief and has sold 320 000 records in the last four years.
“C & W has clear parallels with the old street ballads,” emphasises Strømsaether. “Banal songs like In a Hospital Ward and The Idiot were related to everyday life and contained a strong dose of melancholy and morality. These songs survived by word of mouth and everyone could identify with the content. C & W survived the 70s and 80s, when it was regarded as embarrassingly hick, in the same way.”
“Of course it was hick,” agrees Art and Repertoire Manager Audun Tylden from Tylden & Co. “Nashville was the domain of the gas stations and roadside cafés. A name like Buck Owens always raised a laugh.” Today, Tylden's artists, the Hellbillies, officially inspired by Buck Owens, reign supreme on the Norwegian language roots charts.
The rise and fall of the cowboy in Norway was not due to music alone. Long before any Norwegian used the term “soap opera”, the western series Gunsmoke dominated our TV screens - for 75 weeks in a row. This was an extraordinarily long run - series usually ran for 12 weeks. Saturday nights were sacred and the streets were almost empty. You couldn't take part in a sensible conversation at lunch the following Monday without knowing about the latest events in Dodge City.
At the same time - in the early 70s - we forgot all our sources of national pride, such as Ibsen and the Viking conquests. Our Norwegian hero went by the name of US Marshal Morgan Kane. In eighty-three books, published in more than ten million in Norway alone, bank clerk Kjell Hallbing, alias Louis Masterson, wrote himself into publishing history. New pocket books appeared-every other mouth. The more the critics groaned about trivial literature and violence, the bigger the editions grew. People still speculate today about Morgan Kane's probable fate and how the hero of these novels will end his life – in the final book.
Political mass culture killed off our western heroes. The unrequited love of the lonely, gun-toting cowboy could not be combined with a world that hated war and weapons. A cowboy could not solve world problems. But he could relieve Norwegian melancholy.
If you were to define Norwegian taste in one word, it would be “melancholic”. This has many peculiar effects on popular music. The record industry tags artists who express melancholy feelings or sing lad ballads in gravely voices as “big in Norway”. Common to names like Leonard Cohen, Joe Cocker and Bonnie Tyler, is the fact that they do not exactly sing humorous songs in crystal-clear voices. They have all become a kind of Norwegian property, with a remarkably strong hold on the Norwegian public compared with other markets. They are conservative and loyal to their fans in this tiny market, and are regarded as “major pop stars”. It should also be pointed out that ordinary pop music does not do well on the Norwegian market. A traditional pop star must be very patient and survive for several seasons to overcome the reputation of being a nine-day wonder. There are as many explanations of this odd situation as there are record buyers and bewildered record producers. The myths about C & W are therefore in line with this definition of Norwegian taste. White American “hillbilly” music has its origins in rural areas. With successive waves of immigration, it acquired elements of Irish and Norwegian (Scandinavian) folk music. Music theorists often point to the similarities between Ireland/Norway and the Mid-West/Rocky Mountains. Our surroundings and environment affect our cultural expression. It is no coincidence that roots music is currently strongest in Ireland and Norway. Today's roots artists are true to their American ideals. When the female duo Somebody's Darling sings heartbreakingly about “men they have met”, they are following traditional American female vocalist themes: “broken hearts”, “the man that got away” and “I must be strong”. In the same way, the Hellbillies identify with hillbillies from the American mountains. They are of farming stock from the Hallingdalen valley and use “hick lingo”, i.e. they sing in their own dialect, which makes great demands on the glossaries in the lyric booklets!
Somebody's Darling and the Hellbillies cultivate traditional instrumentation, themes and singing techniques.
Although Somebody's Darling sing in English, they are Norwegian in the sense that they represent individualism and strengthen the female identity of Norwegian popular music. Do we dare point out that both Somebody's Darling and the Hellbillies have in the last year been two of the country's best-selling groups and have undeniable appeal in both rural and urban areas?
Between the Nashville hegemony of the 60s and today's quality roots music we have had all manner of cowboys and cowgirls: the Hollywood period, with the mature crooner à la Jim Reeves, dressed in impeccable stetson (Bjøro Håland), the studio perfectionist and upholder of tradition (Ottar "Big Hand" Johansen) and the outlaws who sang about life on the road and on the bum - there isn't a trend in American country music that hasn't had its Norwegian parallel - with the exception of Nashville Brass!
“Norwegian artists and the Norwegian public have always been particularly faithful to Nashville,” says Tylden. “Nashville was synonymous with C & W, and innumerable Norwegian records have been produced there.” In recent years, Houston has taken over the dominant position, since Nashville has been dubbed a lifeless studio town. Houston, on the other hand, is alive and kicking. Today's Norwegian roots artists follow the traditional trail to the USA. It brings inspiration, and the local studio musicians have the necessary know-how and understand this kind of music.
Norway is really a rather odd country. We have a West, i.e. a dream of a West, that Arizona and Texas probably cannot fulfil. But dreams are what music is made of, and we can call it what we like. This year's Norwegian Grammy Awards Committee has changed last year's roots class to a roots/C 8r W category. Songs written in Norwegian reality are sung in Nashville or Houston and vice versa. Dreams always create music. The boots are polished and the shoestring tie is knotted in this country east of the West.