I am, I will admit, not feeling well as I post this. There’s a bit of abdominal pain that I’m praying to God isn’t an appendix that’s about to burst– getting surgery in a foreign country will be an expensive hassle. But while I’m in a slight state of delusion, I thought I would use it to my advantage and posit an argument that will run counter to all expectations. Yes, I am going to argue that Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, is, in fact, a musical genius almost on par with his three other colleagues.
Ringo is a peculiar kind of genius– but then, so were the other three. First you have John Lennon, the muse of the 60s radical, directly confronting power, while dreaming of a better alternative in “Imagine.” At the same time, Lennon successfully turned pop music eternally inward, making the angst of the artist worthy of commemoration- just look at the agony he puts himself through on the Plastic Ono Band album. Then, we have Paul, an instinctually talented songwriter with a knack for melodies so strong, he has literally composed them in his sleep. George Harrison’s reputation, meanwhile, has skyrocketed since his death almost one decade earlier, and he is now widely recognized for his role in incorporating the tambour of South Asian music into Western frameworks.
Ringo Starr, I would argue, is closest to George Harrison in these three models of genius– and his skill lies in taking one genre and translating it into a new idiom. In this, I refer to Ringo Starr as the first authentic British country musician.
When the Beatles cut their teeth as musicians in Hamburg (John, Paul, and George with the Silver Beetles, Ringo with an outfit called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes), they listened to the wide spectrum of American rock music– which included the usual suspects of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly– but also singers deeply entrenched in country and western music, including Carl Perkins. Ringo, more than any other Beatle, listened to the BCC’s “lighte music station” for the occasional country and western tune, and read the cowboy magazines while convalescing in the hospital from tuberculosis. In fact, in his early twenties, he even wrote to U.S. immigration, hoping to become a U.S. citizen and move to Texas.
Instead, Ringo played out his country and western fantasies with his career in The Beatles. Even before joining them, he took on a moniker that seemed to the lore of the open prairie and the range– characters like “Johnny Ringo” populated the comic books, and the last name “Starr” added a fanciful moniker to create a cowboy identity for young Richard Starkey. Indeed, in 1964 one of the few records to hit #1 by a non-British-invasion artist was a spoken recording by Lorne Green about a Western outlaw named… “Ringo”, and this song was free of any Beatles references!
From 1964 to 1965, Ringo’s output with the band took on as starkly country-and-western a cast as George’s output from 1966 to 1968 was influenced by Indian music. 1964 saw two Carl Perkins covers sung by Ringo– “Matchbox” and “Honey Don’t”. But the strongest and most emblematic country song in The Beatles canon was “Act Naturally”, a country #1 his by Buck Owens. This song earned a coveted spot (and provided some badly needed levity) as the B-side to the “Yesterday” single, and started off the second side of the Help! lp. 1965 closed with “What Goes On”, a country-tinged pop song, where Ringo actually contributed to John and Paul’s lyrics- the only song in the canon credited to precisely three Beatles. Later, on The White Album, Ringo contributed his first solo composition, a send-up called “Don’t Pass Me By” that incorporated an extended fiddle to accentuate its down-home charm.
As a solo artist, Ringo’s sophomore effort was an entire country and western album called Beaucoups of Blues, recorded in Nashville, and borrowing session musicians from the Opry. While it wasn’t a success, it was a clear statement of artistic direction in many ways comparable to Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass or McCartney’s defiantly understated McCartney album, both from 1970. His breakout album in pop music, 1973’s “Ringo”, included a great many numbers with country influence- including one written by Hoyt Axton called the “No No Song” (a tribute to refusing alcohol and drugs, and perhaps the most hypocritical song for the Ringo of the mid-70s to record), and an effort with The Band called “Sunshine Life for Me”. Later on in his career, he would return again and again to the country motif– whether in reprise of “Act Naturally” with Buck Owens, or the elegant “King of Broken Hearts” with a strong slide guitar solo from his mate George Harrison. I can even remember seeing him perform in 1995 in Latham, New York, and the sheer joy on his face when he sang “Act Naturally” was infectious– a man put a cowboy hat on stage, and Ringo playfully wore it for the rest of the song. I’ve never– in hundreds of hours of Beatles footage I’ve watched over the years– seen Ringo happier. The great western motif of the riding the rails can even be seen in his turn as “Mr. Conductor” from Shining Time Station.
It’s more than Ringo simply recording these songs, however. He created an authentic persona through them- doleful, down on his luck, the underdog- his songs evoke a mixture of sympathy and humor that came across as entirely authentic. Almost any other British artist would have risked kitsch, and would have risked artistic credibility, to have recorded so much country material. From the unlucky movie star of “Act Naturally” to the recovering drug addict of “No No Song”, a clear, carefree persona emerges in these records that resonated with Ringo’s public image as a sad-eyed everyman who implausibly struck it big with the greatest band in the world.
So- you ask- what is the significance of Ringo simply recording country music? Consider for a moment his British identity– and how the idea of a British country musician is so counter-intuitive- how can you take such a definitionally American form of music and have some limey record it? A fair question, but consider as well what British musicians did to the no less American blues music– whether in the Yardbirds, or the Rolling Stones, or Cream. Ringo’s genius, if you are inclined to call it that, is proving that these forms of music were not the patrimony of the United States, but were universal. While Ringo’s solo output declined considerably over the 1970s, this is a fault that can be laid at the feet of almost any of his contemporaries. If his more recent records are an incoherent fruit salad of nostalgia and shallows exhortations of peace and love, (as important as those two concepts are), Ringo ought to be remembered as the first Englishman to mosey on up into the saddle and become a Westerner. And all he had to do was act naturally.