Wednesday Western: Country Western ambient | Blaze Media


We’re doing something a little different this week for Wednesday Western: a list of some of the best country Western ambient albums, an interesting genre that doesn’t get enough attention.

These albums are relaxing and great as background music, but they also do well at a dinner party or while exercising. They are wonderful to play when working or studying, cleaning or driving, you name it. They also help a certain Align writer find the most accurate words and emotions when he’s working on the Wednesday Western series.

There’s an emotional resonance to these albums. I used to play the Chuck Johnson album and the Corntuth album on repeat when my oldest kid was an infant and wouldn’t go to sleep (every night). It almost always calmed her down.

And the best part: They all have a Western vibe and sound. The most prominent connection is the lap steel guitar. It’s mind-blowing how well that sliding tremolo pairs with electronic instruments. But there are tons of other connections to these albums and Western movies, Western culture as a whole.

Now, if I had to, I would guess that most people probably won’t like the KLF album, so I put it near the bottom of the page. It’s more of an acquired taste, but it would have been sloppy of me to exclude it. The Steve Roach album is good, it probably sounds the most like a spaghetti Western soundtrack, but it’s not my favorite album by him, it’s just the most relevant to country Western ambient.

This isn’t officially a ranked list, but those first five albums are the best, in my opinion, and the most likely that people will enjoy. The goal here is to uplift.

And, worst case, if you hate all of these, we’ll be back to the Duke in no time at all. There will be plenty more music entries coming up, including interviews with musicians and songwriters who love Westerns as much as we do. Two of these interviews will drop fairly soon, once I finish video edits.

The entire playlist

Corntuth — ‘The Desert is Paper Thin’ (2021)

My top pick for the album that captures country Western ambient is Corntuth’s “The Desert is Paper Thin.”

Corntuth still hasn’t captured the audience he deserves — I say “he,” but I don’t really know anything personal about the artist called Corntuth. The only information that has leaked is that Corntuth made “The Desert is Paper Thin” primarily using an “acoustic guitar and the cosmic emanations of a 1983 Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.”

And, of course, the pedal steel guitar. In a blurb on Flow State, he says: “I always wanted to pair the DX7 with pedal steel, because I think they’re the two loneliest sounding instruments there are.”

For this task, Corthuth enlisted Pete Finney, a Nashville studio pedal steel guitar player who takes the instrument past its assumed limitations.

“The Desert is Paper Thin” was the second album released on Flow State Records, an English independent label that specializes mostly in ambient and lo-fi beats. The label also releases two hours’ worth of “instrumental music that’s perfect for working.”

I’m captivated by the devotion to providing a soundtrack for working folks. The first album released by Flow State Records was Corntuth’s 2020 album “Music To Work To,” an ambient masterpiece and, more importantly, an homage to the laborer in need of the soft and gorgeous assurances of ambient music.

Corntuth’s approach to titles has been consistent, beginning his first album with “A-001” on Side A and ending Side B with “B-004.” On “The Desert is Paper Thin,” he continues chronologically, opening Side A with “C-001” followed by “C-002,” “C-003,” “C-004,” and “C-005.” At which point, you flip the record for tracks “D-001” to “D-005.” The general assumption is that the bareness of these titles allows listeners to impose their own stories and visions.

The artist’s vision for the album, however, was that “it tracks one person’s drive alone across a desert over the course of one day, a drive across the desert alone by morning, afternoon, night, late evening, and dawn.”

This restlessness, this need for motion, is coded into the album, which Corntuth recorded while in quarantine, desperate to at least
feel like escape is possible.

The Flow State YouTube channel released “Desert Ambient Music,” a collection of open desert in Landers, California, captured on VHS. With Corntuth’s quote in mind, there is a certain loneliness to this video. But that feeling evaporates with the same tiptoeing light that swats “The Desert is Paper Thin” to a close.

As the mysterious musician
put it in an interview, “If anyone thinks about the story of the ‘main character’ in the LP, I was hoping there’d be an implicit feeling of tension between a sense of running towards something, and the risk of running from something. Probably none of that comes through, though, but it was helpful for me to think about in making it.”

I think it does come through. I think Corntuth makes art, and all art wants to become music.

Hayden Pedigo — ‘Greetings from Amarillo’ (2018)

Hayden Pedigo was 23 years old when he released “Greetings from Amarillo.” Before that, he’d put out five albums of guitar-centered ambient.

A truly good piece of music succeeds by changing its listeners — improving us. Hayden Pedigo’s “Greetings from Amarillo” is an example of this transformation.

He designed the album “a tribute to the landscape of Amarillo, Texas and the different spaces I’ve discovered here.”
Adding, “Amarillo’s landscape is a huge inspiration to me. It is kind of ugly some days and beautiful on other days! I really just wanted the album to be like a bizarre nature tour in a jeep just driving through Amarillo looking around ya know. It covers a lot of moods but people might create their own narrative to the music.”

The entire album builds to that closing track, “Thoughts on Greetings from Amarillo.” It’s a poem read by West Texas legend Terry Allen. The momentum from the album carries the dance of acoustic guitar and synthesizer into the silence of the poem. It’s the only spoken word on the entire LP, and it captures the album in a truly surprising way.

Shortly after “Greetings from Amarillo” came out, 24-year-old Pedigo
launched a political battle against Amarillo City Council, a conflict emboldened by the very same avenues of the internet that Pedigo used to launch his career.

SUSS — ‘Ghost Box’ (2018)

In an article about Chuck Johnson (below), the Guardian
described how “NYC quintet Suss, played a medley of the self-described ‘ambient country’ soundscapes that they had been making since casually forming at a party some years before.”

SUSS co-founder Bob Holmes goes on to say that “we might capture this Big Sky Montana feel, but we’re urban musicians.”

This surprised me, although it should not have.

By the way, Bob Holmes hosts a
monthly podcast devoted to ambient country on Flow State Records, home of Corntuth. In fact, it might even be reasonable to suspect that Holmes is Corntuth.

“Ghost Box” begins with the jangled tremolo of a guitar lost in wavering air. For this article, I have listened to these albums, and many others that didn’t make the cut, for hours — hours. And I still have yet to get bored with or sick of the steel guitar.

Or, at least, the ambient version of it, which is certainly different than what you’ll hear on a Dwight Yoakam track.

And now, again, we return to the metaphor of two worlds. The circularity of “Ghost Box” is calming, like a perfect haircut — we start with “Witchita” then wander the frontier wildlands reflected by the big sky, caught in rainfall, then face-to-face with a gunslinger, before arriving at the canyonlands that carry us home to Wichita.

Holmes described the genre in an interview: “It’s about two words: high and lonesome. You get the feeling of expansiveness, of tugging at the heartstrings. It’s warm and inviting music that creates spaces you just fall into and fall in love with.”

Chuck Johnson — ‘Balsams’ (2017)

Chuck Johnson is an underground hero in the ambient world, but also among the cultural librarians, like the folks at
NPR. For what it’s worth — these days, not much — Pitchfork rated it 8.1, which is an accomplishment, most of the time.

As the New York Times
put it, “Johnson played every note on “Balsams,” as if it were a self-made panacea for anyone within earshot.”

Put on “Riga Black,” and you’ll be hooked. As we’ve already seen, steel guitar sounds fantastic in ambient music.

His website
tells us that, “He approaches his work with an ear towards finding faults and instabilities that might reveal latent beauty, with a focus on pedal steel guitar, experimental electronics, alternate tuning systems, and composing for film and television.”

Daniel Lanois — ‘Belladonna’ (2005)

You know how I said that only three of the tracks on Brian Eno’s “Apollo” evince country Western ambient?

That’s largely thanks to the steel guitar player, the way he threads the twang of country music’s most iconic and unique instrument with the transcendental futurism of ambient music, without its concern for the rules of the art form.

The man who skated his tone bar across the tabled guitar till it sang with vibrato, as eerie as it is enticing, was Daniel Lanois.

All those years ago, Lanois and Eno formed an alliance. They’ve collaborated on some truly impressive projects, like U2’s “The Joshua Tree”; three Peter Gabriel albums; three Bob Dylan albums, including “Time Out of Mind”; Emmylou Harris; Leonard Cohen. He composed the soundtrack for “Sling Blade” and appeared on the soundtrack of the videogame Red Dead Redemption 2, which will make an appearance in this series.

Best of all, he has scooped up seven Grammy Awards in the process.

“Belladonna,” however, is entirely his. You can tell. Brilliantly, he starts with “Two Worlds.”

I can’t think of a more accurate image for country Western ambient: the smooth cohesion of two separate kingdoms of sound.

It’s an album you can keep on in the background, on repeat, or place it front and center, crank the speakers, and feel the plucking skate of the tabletop harp of an instrument.

“Oaxaca” has a beautiful haunt to it. Although, “Agave” is a standout on an album of standouts. The trumpets resemble the horns of a spaghetti Western shootout scene, the moment that all that grunting and sneering has led to.

And, at 38 minutes’ length, it’s over before you have time to get tired of its majestic swells and remedies.

When we arrive at the closing track, “Todos Santos,” the steel guitar has tiptoed away without our noticing.

Steve Roach — ‘Dust to Dust’ (1998)

Steve Roach took a different route to ambient country Western.

Early in his career, he made a lot of motor-driven synthesizer-heavy tracks, like “Structures of Silence” (1984), an album that has aged beautifully and gained credit as one of the fundamental ambient albums, or “Impetus” (1986), which was incredibly ahead of its time and could easily fit in with the sharpest ambient music coming out today.

In the four decades since then, he has released a head-spinning number of albums — too many to count with ease. Last year, he released a beautiful album, “Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York City.” He’s actually put out seven albums since then.

His catalog includes just about every variation of ambient music. Although, if you only listen to “Dust to Dust,” you mightn’t be able to tell that he’s explored anything other genre: It bursts with his dedication to the sounds, emotions, tropes, and images of the frontier.

The authenticity of this endeavor is what makes the album so lovable. At times, you can almost feel a cowboy hat growing out of your skull.

More specifically, the country Western ambient genre appears in three songs from Eno’s “Apollo.”

Just as John Cage came up with the framework for “experimental” music, Brian Eno pioneered the ambient genre. His 1978 masterpiece “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” serves as the official birth of this new sound. His goal with it was to “induce calm and a space to think,” achieving a strange balance that makes it “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Five years later, Eno turned his attention to space. This album began as the soundtrack to “For All Mankind,” the breathtaking, and narrator-less, documentary that charts the evolution of the Apollo program, a collection of the most powerful scenes among the millions of feet of 16mm and 35mm film.

The space element pairs beautifully with the earthiness of the pedal guitar that appears on “Silver Morning,” “Deep Blue Day,” and “Weightless” — all country-inspired ambient pieces featuring Daniel Lanois on pedal steel guitar.

The KLF — ‘Chill Out’

Before we dive into “Chill Out,” a beautiful and weird collage of sound, I should warn you that it is probably the one album on this list that many people would find unlistenable. “Chill Out” is one of the strangest masterpieces to elevate the ambient genre. It is dramatically more important than any of these other albums.

The KLF is a duo unlike any other. Their early recordings are drenched in samples and beats that are vaguely hip-hop. From there, they embarked on a journey through the expanses of electronic music.

“Chill Out” marks the height of their ambient phase. Which is interesting, given the southern undertones of it: “Chill Out” is a tribute to America. The real America, its quiet backroads, its fields of crickets at nightime, charting a journey through Texas and into Louisiana, bobbing along to various American anthems along the way — “In the Ghetto” by Elvis, “Eruption” by Van Halen, “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac, along with electronic anthems like “Pacific State” by electronic godfathers 808 State.

What makes all of this unusual is that The KLF members are English. Their magical road trip through the deep south, kept company by goats and a radio, was recorded in London. More impressive, the duo recorded it live in one take.

If you only listen to one track, make it “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard.” It doesn’t contain any samples of the Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” which is a perfect song. The KLF’s tribute comes 30 minutes into this strange album. “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard” lifts the entire experience into the backwoods, where red-faced preachers save their towns from the fire of hell and AM radio sways through the airwaves.

But then, something profound happens. A melody appears. Out of the tangled landscape of animal noises and roads without any tread, on an album that exists in the glimmer of light and the excess of shadow, a stable pulse emerges.

Honorable Mentions:

Seabuckthorn — ‘Through a Vulnerable Occur’ (2020)

Labraford — ‘Mi Media Naranja’ (1997)

Harold Budd — ‘By The Dawn’s Early Light’ (1991)

Las Vegas News Magazine

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