On July 15th, esteemed record excavators Light in the Attic release Country Funk II: 1967-1974, the second compilation of a genre that's unlikely, completely fictional and utterly fantastic. It's the brainchild of Los Angeles digger Zach Cowie, 33, a man who makes his living through curation, film supervision and DJ gigs — basically a professional record geek.
Bringing together country songs with sick breakbeats, twangy-groovin' rock covers and all sorts of genre-crossovers, Country Funk II unearths the most head-knocking moments from Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Kenny Rogers and a whole mess of far less famous people. In turn, it may be the year's most masterful compilation — working as a stellar DJ set, a collection of underappreciated gems, and the blueprint for the careers of contemporary artists like Big Smo and Florida Georgia Line.
Rolling Stone Country talks to Cowie about his admittedly "made up" sub-genre.
Is there a song that sort of kick-started the idea of "country funk" for you?
All this stuff came from my days of being a tour manager. I toured with bands like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom and Vetiver and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. We would just buy records everywhere. And there was a real moment when you realize that when you think you're hot shit, you sort of don't know anything. That happened with those Link Wray records.
All of my prior information about this person would suggest that he never made music that sounded like that. I really liked the "Rumble"-era stuff, but it actually blew my mind when I listened to the record, which I played on a whim because the cover was rad. I was like, "Oh, I didn't even realize this dude made records in the Seventies." And I heard a sound that was just everything I wanted. So I think we used "Fire and Brimstone" on the first volume — that song is what made me want to find more stuff like that. And the whole "country funk," me and my friends just made it up, which I think is so funny because I've done some interviews where people have almost put more thought into it than I have.
When you were first looking for these records, were you coming from a country-nerd angle or a breakbeat digger angle?
It's funny, man. I have a Waylon Jennings tattoo on one wrist and a J Dilla one on the other, and that's just me. I think the older and deeper I got into record collecting, the more I tried to just get rid of the genres. I just want stuff that's good, and that leads me to dig through an entire record store when I'm there. A lot of the records that made it onto these compilations really just came from needle droppings on 45s. Like, anything I wasn't totally familiar with, I'd just sit there and play it on a portable turntable, and it just amassed over ten years of doing that. And then my friends have been like, endless resources for this, too. When we started to kind of joke about it kind of being like a "little sound," all my friends were finding other stuff, too. The thank-yous on these compilations are really important to me because all these dudes gave me really important music.
After the first one, were people coming to you, giving you suggestions all the time?
I tried to keep the suggestions to that little group of friends because I still wanted it to seem that I was DJ'ing in your backyard. Maybe some stubbornness, but I try to keep it to my ears and my trusted associates. The Light in the Attic guys are totally invaluable in this — mainly because they do all the licensing. [Laughs]. But Matt [Sullivan] and Patrick [McCarthy] at the label have thrown tracks at me that have made it on both the records.
So these two call up Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton's people. Are they like, "You want to use this song for what?"
Oh, totally, man. And that's what was so great about the reception of the first one: It made the second one a lot easier to sell to these folks because we can just use the press from the first one to tell them what we're trying to do. Because like I said — it's totally made up. I think the phone calls Light in the Attic had to make for Volume 2 were a little mellower than the first one.
What's the most surprising reception that you got from the original?
I was so excited about how it did overseas — in the UK and Europe. I think that always existed, the fantasy that goes along with this sound. It makes so much sense that people in areas, geographically, they can't feel this stuff, why they would fixate on it? And I guess that's where this whole pub-rock scene and sound came about — these British dudes were obsessed with the Eagles. There's a fantasy in it.
Is there anything you couldn't get the rights to?
Yeah and it's not because we got denied on it. This is shocking to me, that besides this one track I'm about to mention, we got everything we wanted, which was amazing. But there's one track called "Black Grass" [by Bad Bascomb]. I wanted that track so bad. We tried to get it on the first one, then we tried to get it on the second one, but no one knows who owns it, so we couldn't use it. Which is weird because it's been sampled for some pretty big tracks. I don't know who's getting the checks for that. [Laughs]
The Billy Swan cover of "Don't Be Cruel" has a really incredible break on it, and it maybe it's been on a breakbeat comp at one point.
Oh, yeah — some of this stuff is just Ultimate Breakbeats 101.
But it's ultimately gone un-sampled, from what we can find.
That's funny to me because it seems to me that somebody should have grabbed it. You know, hip-hop's funny like that: You have some dudes who are the most gifted producers ever, that have been stuck in the same crate for a really long time. For that one, I'd be willing to bet that they couldn't license it for a sample because that record shows up for sale all the time. It's not going to take you a month to find a copy.
Your comps always end around 1975, is there a historical sense about why?
This is crazy person stuff, I recognize that, but I have a lot of records, and around '76/'77, I started a new section in my organizing because I think studio technology changed so much. Stuff just started to sound different. Punk, the whole U.K., DIY thing — it just opened doors and possibilities that had been shut for a long time. You can, put a lot of stuff next to each other from like '66 to '74, just because the drums sound the same. But when everything kind of opened up with the Pistols record, everything started to sound different. Which isn't to say you can't combine it, but when I DJ, I really try to focus on aesthetics. I don't want something dirty next to something super-clean because that's like a Serato decision; that's not what I do.