ACCORDION IN COUNTRY MUSIC
Country uses very specific instruments. Lead electric guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, keyboards of course, drums (at least the good ones use real drums), steel guitar, and fiddle. Sure, Charlie McCoy was in demand for a stretch of time for his harmonica playing, and sometimes a bit of banjo is slipped onto a track to shake things up. I'm partial to the mandolin (thank you, Marty Stuart). Then there's the dobro, which is used primarily in bluegrass (think: Alison Krauss and Union Station).
The accordion, however, is about as popular in country as the autoharp, and there's a practical reason for that.
An accordion is an unwieldy instrument, and it can't be electrified. It's also hard to tame. Because an accordion "breathes" through bellows, a player must know enough to keep it from running out of breath in the midst of a solo. There's nothing more embarrassing than belching out a ballad and finding that you've misjudged the air capacity required, so you sheepishly ease the bellows closed with your left hand, then open again; praying no one notices the desperate gasp of a dying song (and, of course, everybody notices). That's why the accordion is mainly used for polkas, which are rather staccato, and Mexican ballads like "Yellow Bird". One can drag out "Yellow Bird" as much as needed, and the audience thinks you're being soulful.
Yes, I took accordion lessons for about five years (at my dad's insistence), so I know. I never much liked the accordion, but I didn't truly hate it until eighth grade, when I was tasked with learning Beethoven's Concerto No. 5, when all I wanted to do was go home and flip my transistor radio to The Box Tops. And I had my share of recitals, where the audience consisted of bored moms who just wanted to get home and fire up the frying pan for dinner. To this day, though, I could probably whip out (which is a misnomer, because "whipping out" requires unsnapping the top, then unsnapping the bottom, then flexing the dry bellows to let air circulate within them) my old Morbidoni and fumble out a wan version of Julida Polka.
In the right, more talented hands, though, the accordion isn't all that bad. Where country music has sometimes employed the accordion, it wasn't the big boxy instrument, but the Zydeco version. A Zydeco accordion is kind of a mini, and it doesn't have a keyboard; it has buttons on both the right and the left. And the fact that the instrument is smaller and lighter than a standard accordion (and thus doesn't have to be balanced like a behemoth on one's thigh) allows for greater performance flexibility.
Since there's no keyboard on a Zydeco accordion, there's no "basso". The sound is all treble, which is what gives it its distinctive sound.
The best known Zydeco accordionist employed on country tracks is Flaco Jimenez. Here is a 1996 performance of Flaco alongside The Mavericks:
Most famously, Jimenez has appeared on several Dwight Yoakam tracks, like this one:
It's also Flaco playing on this track with Dwight and Buck, although they apparently used a stand-in for the video (!)
Call me biased, but I think the accordion adds something of value to country.
I am not, however, available for hire.
Michelle Anderson, Senior Country Editor