COUNTRY GENTLEMAN (Don Williams, R.I.P.)

I didn’t realize until I went down the YouTube rabbit hole after Don’s death was announced this week just who many of his songs I still knew by heart, or that he had provided the missing link between Jim Reeves and Randy Travis. He’s known to rock audiences (if at all) as a favorite of Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton (who had a hit with a cover of Williams’ best record, which neither he nor anyone else could hope to improve):

But everybody in country knew Don Williams’ worth, both as a songwriter and, especially, a warm, graceful stylist who both carried on and inspired traditions without ever being mistaken for anyone else.

His legacy was an indelible piece of what country used to be, almost in spite of itself….and what it will be no more, no matter how hard it tries.

But don’t let that fool you. In his own time or any other, nobody else wrote songs called “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and meant to invoke a world that assumed Hank and Tennessee Williams came from the same place, let alone carried it off without breaking a sweat. Charlie Daniels and Hank Jr. have their place and their uses. But Don Williams carved a niche for himself by being the Voice of Reason in the face of rage and resentment. The radio was better when he was on it and the world was better when he was in it.

IT ONLY TAKES ONE (Troy Gentry, R.I.P.)

Country music took a double hit today. I’ll try to gather some thoughts on the mellow giant, Don Williams, later on, but here I’ll note the passing of Troy Gentry, half of the duo Montgomery Gentry, who died in a helicopter crash in New Jersey this afternoon at the age of 50. I can’t say Montgomery Gentry were any big favorite of mine, but I wrote at length about their greatest record here.

And if you don’t feel like clicking over, this video–and vocal–by itself is good enough for any man’s epitaph.

 

JIVE PRINCE (Walter Becker, R.I.P.)

(For my more expansive thoughts on Steely Dan, you can go here.)

Steely Dan were rock’s consummate pedants, the kind the music was liable to produce if it stayed around long enough–which, rock and roll being what it was, and Rock and Roll America being what it was–meant too good to be ignored.

In the world that came spinning out of the 50’s revolution (the real revolution college bound white boys were bound to take credit for sooner or later, even if they had to draft working class Brits for front men–at a certain point, anyone would do, as long as they weren’t blacks or hillbillies, it was only a fluke that the Beatles really were geniuses), even the pedants were better than anyone had a right to expect.

I never shared the thrill so many others bought when Walter Becker and his partner, Donald Fagen, started releasing their pointillist masterworks in the seventies. I loved a few of their records (the musical highlights of which–David Palmer’s haunted vocal on “Dirty Work,” Elliot Randall’s cascading guitar line on “Reelin’ in the Years,” Skunk Baxter’s stinging/healing licks on “Change of the Guard” and “Old School”–were provided by someone other than Becker and his partner, who soon turned exclusively to hired guns anyway), but, really, their entire essence was in their first album’s two lead cuts.

Not to say the essence didn’t have it’s merits–considerable even–but, despite all the accolades, the only thing that reached deeper than a mordant surface after the first album-and-a-half was a cover by the sort of group Steely Dan was meant to erase from history.

I can’t offer the kind of love Becker is getting elsewhere on the occasion of his passing (Terry Teachout called Becker and Fagen “the Stephen Sondheims of rock”…God love him, he meant it as a compliment).

But this is enough to stand for any man’s epitaph….

THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED (Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis, R.I.P.)

I’m a fan of both men, but I don’t know enough about either to add anything to the deserved encomiums that will doubtless pour forth on the occasion of their passing within twenty-four hours of each other.

I can speak to what their deaths–like those of so many other icons of their generation–represent, which is the continuing drip-by-drip erosion of the common culture. No comedian working today, not even Jerry Seinfeld, will create a similar sense of loss if he/she passes thirty years from now, decades on from the height of their fame.

I can also say that this is related to why neither man would make it today.

Our current Paradise controls public thought so rigidly that Gregory’s sharp edges (“A southern liberal is one who hangs you from a low tree”) would be sanded away as the price of the ticket.

And, paradoxically, the degree of physical license we’ve granted ourselves in the place of thought would render Lewis’ style of anarchy simply confusing. Hell, it was pretty confusing even when there were limits for him to push against.

It matters not that neither man had commanded much of the public space for years and years. The blazing glory of their youth will live on as part of what the future remembers about us.

The good part.

ONE MORE BEFORE WE GO…

In the five-plus years I’ve been doing this, I can’t recall a reaction on social media as strong and across-the-board from every quarter as the outpouring of love and respect for Glen Campbell in the last day-and-a-half. It probably says as much about our fractious times and the natural desire to reach for something–anything–that speaks to a common culture, as it does about Campbell’s remarkable career. I might have more to say about that later.

But there’s one story I haven’t seen referenced anywhere else that’s worth repeating. This is from the liner notes of his 1976 Best of...which happened to be one of the first LPs I ever bought.

“Hank Cochran and Jeannie Seeley were out here, and they happened to fall by the studio for a visit. I happen to have a fairly good vocal range, and I was kinda showin’ it off that day. I was cutting ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ for an album and did the performance live. The performance came off so well that I started carrying the dub of it around with me. I was following Elvis into Vegas, and I said, ‘Hey man, I want you to hear this old song. I think it’d be a gas for you.’ And he said ‘A gas for me? I’d release it just as it is.’ And I thought, yea, I just might do that. And wouldn’t you know it, the record went Top 10.'”

Pop, Country and UK. Deservedly so…

No idea if Glen or Elvis pegged the 1958 original (Conway Twitty’s first big hit and one of the greatest vocals ever waxed) as the sublime best-Elvis-ballad-not-by-Elvis it was–the vocal delivering everything the title denied.

More likely they just knew a good thing when they heard it.

In any case Twitty’s early career was one of the first splits Nashville imposed on its artists–forcing them to choose between country and pop, a barely told story, which resulted in the likes of Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers, who were literally Children of Nashville, being shut out of country radio. That story still has its fullest explanation in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City, originally published in 1970, where he outlined a divide which, in the long night between Elvis going in the army in the spring of 1958 and Olivia Newton-John punching through the wall as a true “outsider” in the fall of 1973, only Campbell was able to bridge consistently. (Conway, who hit the Pop Top 40 five times in the fifties–including three Top Tens–didn’t hit the country chart until 1966. After which he never stopped hitting it, but had only one Pop Top 40–1973’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”–the rest of his decades’ long career. Yes, the wall was real. Upon his return from the army, Elvis himself had scant country success until 1974. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Olivia Newton-John wasn’t a working class hero.)

And, yeah, I still wish Elvis had cut it, too.

COUNTRY BOY (Glen Campbell, R.I.P.)

He came along at the right time. No previous era could have accommodated the full range of his gifts, no subsequent era has wanted them.

In the sixties and seventies, though, when going to the big city was still something worth aspiring to for a boy from Billstown, Arkansas, he was at home.

He probably leaves millions of fans, and not a few aficionados, unaware of the depth and scope of his achievement. His guitar playing lit up hundreds of sessions and mellowed out hundreds more. I’ve seen his fellow musicians on the internet here and there claim he was the real talent in the west coast Wrecking Crew that played behind every hit-maker who recorded in L.A., back when every American hit-maker did.

I don’t know enough to confirm or deny that. I know this. None of the others were among the scant number of artists who ever went on the record eighty hits of their own.

That wasn’t by accident. However great he was as a guitar player, he was at least as good a singer. He shone–usually quietly–in the greatest era of vocal music we’ve yet produced. And he shone by being one of the very few who could blend the lonesome quality of the great country singers who doubtless dominated the Arkansas air he grew up in with the laid back assurance of the saloon singers he kept company with in L.A. or Las Vegas as his fame rose high enough to land a variety show that was required viewing for everybody who had a television in my part of the world.

Oh, and he made a few movies. The one big one was only True Grit, where, no matter what you might have heard, he only held his own against John Wayne.

Guess he figured there wasn’t much that arena could offer for an encore after that.

Of course, some might have said the same about his first lasting hit, which was only this…

And they might have said the same about any number of even greater records that flowed forth, one after another, as the years went by.

“Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston” “Try a Little Kindness,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,”–all worthy of being signature songs for him, or anyone, and collectively only scratching the surface.

My own favorite was running up the charts in the months when I first started listening to the radio in the mid-seventies. I knew who he was–had seen him on TV. Even knew some of his songs. But this one served as a kind of sequel to “Rhinestone Cowboy” and was perhaps even more autobiographical.

And a kind of new introduction.

There’s nothing, after all, like the radio. And nothing now, like the radio was then.

Released at the last moment before the city overwhelmed the country and sucked all the life out at both ends, I still hear the final chorus as his finest vocal hour, dedicated to the small voice in all of us that wants to go back and knows it can’t–even if we found every dream we ever left home to search for.

And, oh by the way, he could pick…Like nobody’s business.

Not bad for Billstown, or a man who came to rest tonight….in Tennessee.

B: Memphis, TN, 1936; D: Memphis, TN, 2017….BEGINNING TO END (Red West, R.I.P.)

Perhaps the most recognizable (and toughest) of the Memphis Mafia, Red West was also one of the few who had appreciable musical talent, talent that came out in “If Every Day Was Like Christmas,” “Separate Ways,” “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” among others.

Near the boss’s end, he got fired and co-wrote a scandalous book which I haven’t read (one of these days, one of these days). The boss didn’t live long enough for reconciliation. Some said the book was the last punch to an already weakened heart–that it was having Red’s name on it that really hurt.

I always said only two people knew and they probably only half-knew.

I guess they can worry about working all that out now.

As some of you know, I have contacts on the other side so I wasn’t surprised when a certain familiar voice showed up in my head and asked for a late night dedication.

“What?” I said. “‘Unfaithful Servant?'”

I wasn’t thinking it had to be one of Red’s, or even one of his.

“Naw man,” the boss said. “Up here, it’s all about forgiveness…You do alright. Just play what you feel.”

“You mean the same one I’m gonna play next month, when I re-post for the big 40th?”

“Oh yeah. That’ll get it.”

Fair enough.

So I have it on good authority.

However things were, they’re okay tonight.

Fair enough.

 

THE KID BOWS OUT (Skip Homeier, R.I.P.)

For my generation, Skip Homeier was first encountered, and best known, as part of the supporting cast in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (the one movie literally all of us had seen and all of us knew everybody had seen) and a ubiquitous presence on television, where, in true Character Actor fashion, he might show up in anything from Star Trek

to Helter Skelter.

Grand as all that was, he’ll be known to history for his abiding presence in a string of memorable westerns a generation earlier. At very least, The Gunfighter, Dawn at Socorro, The Tall T and Comanche Station will be watched for as long as history has an interest in the form–which will be as long as history has an interest in us. Homeier played (and defined) the same basic character in each: the callow kid looking to prove his toughness….and failing. He died in every one of them. In every one of them, you were–and are–sad to see him go.

He finally passed from this mortal coil ten days ago. I’m sad to see him go…and happy he’ll be remembered as long as any of the major stars who gunned him down.

Not bad for the kid next door.

DEVIL’S DAUGHTER (Anita Pallenberg, R.I.P.)

Say what you want, but as muses go she had unique power. When she was through with Brian Jones (circa 1967), he was through with himself. When she was through with Keith Richards (circa 1980), the only question left was not whether he would make any more inspired music (he didn’t) but who would get the last laugh in hell.

I know the answer, but, as usual, am sworn to secrecy (made my deal with God…He’s the really strict one).

It’s not all that hard to guess, though. Not really.

She might not be resting in peace tonight…but I have it on good authority she got what she wanted. How many of us can say that?