HOSS OF HOSSES (Waylon Jennings, Vocalist of the Month: 8/16)

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 16: Country musician Waylon Jennings performs onstage with his Fender Telecaster electric guitar at the Palomino on June 16, 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Near the end of Dawn at Socorro, one of those lean-as-a-tomcat westerns Hollywood turned out every other day in the fifties, Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-reform-and-waitin’-for-a-train gunfighter has somebody else’s gun handed to him at the station and is told destiny will be along “in two minutes.”

The station master pokes his head out of the office to ask if he knows who’s coming for him.

“My past,” Calhoun’s Brett Wade says, just before he steps into the street where he’ll gun down four men to keep a girl he met the day before from having to some day say the same. “Every dark, miserable day of it.”

Every great country singer’s voice carries some version of that lament within but Waylon Jennings was its most perfect embodiment.

Partly it was a matter of persona. But, regarding some matters, persona isn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t even talk the talk without first walking the walk.

In the salons and “scenes” where the importance of everything is decided for the rest of us, Waylon’s old comrade-in-arms, Willie Nelson, is the hip one, the name-dropped one, the artiste, the one who nobody would want living in the neighborhood exactly (I mean, who’s so gauche he can’t even fox the taxman?), but who would definitely be fun at parties. If somebody’s on PBS right now talking about how they just love those “rough-voiced” eccentrics who didn’t sing too pretty, they might throw Willie in there with Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or even Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

I only know this because I’ve heard them do it.

A lot.

They don’t throw in Waylon.

Oh, they’ll speak fondly of him if his name happens to come up.

Wasn’t he friends with Willie?

Such an outlaw, too. They started that whole thing, you know. Good for them!

I mean who at PBS or the Voice doesn’t love an outlaw?

They’re always a little reserved, though. Sure they love Waylon.

But they always want to get back to talking about Willie.

Or something.

Anything.

And that makes sense, because deep down, I don’t think even the dimmest pinot-sipper in the land fails to understand that if they ever find themselves in a hinterland roadhouse (presumably on some assignment roughly equivalent to reporting from the African bush), they’ll be in a world that sure does love old Willie and sure does know he’s great….and sure knows he ain’t Waylon.

When you cross that old Red River of the heart, boys, Waylon Jennings is still the king.

 *   *   *   *

How and why?

The outline of the tale is familiar. Buddy Holly’s band. Lost a coin flip for a seat on the plane.

I’ll be nice and warm at the next stop while you’re freezin’ your ass off on that bus son.

Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes!

Words to that effect.

The future waiting to be born, son.

Every dark, miserable day of it.

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Then the rest. An all but inevitable guilt-and-recovery period in West Texas followed by the usual road to Nashville and as conventional a stardom as a genuine eccentric can have. Hits. The Opry. Whiskey river. Nicotine stains. Life on the road in a hillbilly band.

And, all along the way, a series of accumulations: of wisdom, hard knocks, gravitas, a catch in the throat. Always the spiritual and physical pull back to Texas, where, more or less inevitably, “outlaw” morphed from an attitude into what should have been a pretty disposable image, a way to sell records for a few years until the next thing came along.

Except with Waylon, it was more than just a phase. The word fit any number of people, but he was the only one who made it sound necessary, while also keeping a claim on the top of the country charts for as long as any of the perfectly respectable superstars aiming for the middle of the road. Between the “just try and make me give a shit” world represented by Billy Joe Shaver and the “send my regrets” aspirational world represented by someone as tough as even Merle Haggard, there was no guarantee of a fit–no guarantee that anyone could sing from the other side of the tracks without even pretending he wanted to cross over. Waylon Jennings was one of those singers the world didn’t know it needed–and who maybe didn’t know it needed him–until he found his true voice.

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You can hear every step of that journey, including the discomfort with form-and-formula’s easy promises that meant he would eventually have to strike out down his own path, and the disdain for form-and-formula’s easy rewards that meant no easy hat–not even the outlaw hat–would ever quite fit his head, on Nashville Rebel, the superb box set from 2006.

It’s a long way from being the only Waylon you’ll ever need, but it’s still a stunning overview, and with 93 cuts that stretch from 1958 to 1995, it’s a deep dive.

You could go deeper. Just for starters, this doesn’t have his originals of “Broken Promise Land” (an album cut that was later a fine hit for Mark Chestnutt) or “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (a stiff that was later an even finer hit for Travis Tritt). I mean when you can leave this of your four-disc box set, you’re catalog is pretty much bottomless:

A close listen to that cut goes some way toward explaining why the taste-makers have never quite been comfortable embracing Waylon’s music, however much they pretend to be enamored of his image. There’s a tremulous catch that’s forever threatening to break into a sob, a device he used more than occasionally on ballads. It’s a device familiar to Pentecostal Sunday mornings, where it’s used almost exclusively by rough-hewn males overcome by some regret, real or imagined.

And with Waylon, as with the sinners he was emulating–or honoring–it’s not always possible to extricate the real emotion from the professional showmanship. Is that a true catch in his throat, or one carefully summoned for the occasion?

This, too, is a common thread among country singers, one shared with white gospel singers the way shoutin’-n’-moanin’ is shared by black gospel and soul singers. On either side of that narrow divide, sometimes the raw emotion is too real for words, sometimes too synthetic for advertising. Either way, in the voices of of the greats, it’s always posited as a means of not merely striving to connect experiences, but of telling the true believers (that is, the ones who know which part of the fakery is meant only for them and is, oddly, therefore earned) from the deep-dyed poseurs (who are always certain their b.s. detector is superior to yours) .

Waylon Jennings, who could calculate a sloppy tear-in-the-beer as well as any pew-bound side-burned car salesman who ever lived, teased out the distinctions between hard truth (lived!) and careful constructs (imagined!…or “faked”) like no one else this side of Solomon Burke. It’s a quality Robert Christgau once summed up as “grease.”

But the audience Waylon sang for knew grease doesn’t always mean Brylcreem. Sometimes it means you’ve been working the gears. Sometimes it means you’re shiny with sweat. Yeah, it still means the word-slingers at the Village Voice are looking down on you. It means that, no matter how you cut it. But some of those definitions earn you the right to slough off the others. You sweat enough, work enough, and everybody who did the same will cut you some slack on the grease-stain your head leaves on the pillow case. There are places where your work ethic–finally inextricable from your willingness to continually put yourself on the line between art and showmanship–will earn you a sneer.

Other places it just means you are walking the walk

*   *   *  *

So Waylon Jennings, with the perfect name, perfect biography, perfect voice, perfect set of sins, walked the walk up one side of country stardom and down the other.

Up to Nashville…

Disc 1-4:

Disc 1-13:

Disc 1-19:

Where some part of him could never quite fit…

Disc 1-24:

And there was no choice except to keep shearing away everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, while he walked down the other side of the slippery slope where everybody expects you to take a header…

Disc 2-8 and 2-18:

Until, if you surprise everybody and manage to stay upright, somebody in the advertising department has to come up with the obvious and call you “Outlaw”…

Disc 2-22:

Which turns out to be just a way to hide in plain sight while you dig deeper…

Disc 2-20:

After which, you have a chance to do your schtick …

Disc 3-9:

Disc 3-20:

And then, having proved yourself four times over, you earn a chance, just every once in a while, to be free…

Disc 4-6:

Disc 4-15:

Like all the greatest singers in any genre, The Hoss carried the weight of everything he had done–for and to himself, for and to others–in even his slightest performances. More than most great singers, there came a time he had done enough for and to everybody that nothing was ever really slight. Which is why this box tracks all the way to the end.

Disc 4-20:

So long Slick.

Back in the land where most of us got called Hoss by somebody or other, we haven’t forgot who the real Hoss is….

Disc 3-1:

…or that the first requirement is the ability to laugh at yourself

Waylon Jennings: 1937-2002

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(Note: I’m going to make an extra effort to get the Vocalist of the Month category going again. As part of the new day, I’m going to recommend some good starting points for anyone not already familiar with the artist. As always, I ask you to consider clicking through my site’s icon if you want to buy anything from Amazon. I get a few pennies on the dollar and any proceeds go to supporting the site or purchasing material for review.)

Recommended:

Box Set:

Nashville Rebel (2006) A fantastic box, partially reviewed above, which stretches from the late fifties to the mid-nineties. There’s no better place to get a firm grasp on the scope of Jennings’ achievement. What I’ve linked above is a smattering.

Best of:

Time Life Legendary Country Singers (1996) On the other hand, if you want to limit yourself to the highlights, you can’t beat this collection, which is long out of print but tends to be readily available cheap and used.

Studio Albums:

Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (1973)
Dreaming My Dreams (1975)
Turn the Page (1985)

The pick of the litter from the half dozen or so I own. I imagine there are a dozen more of the same quality but these give a good sense of what was going on behind the hits.

Live Album:

Waylon Live! Expanded Edition (2003) A good bet for the greatest live country collection and a match for any live music released in any genre. This turns the excellent album he released in 1976 into a two-hour dream show that doesn’t quit. One of those moments (or series of related moments) when everything comes together…and everything clicks.

MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

FRANKANDNANCY

This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

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Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

 

SOUTHERN MAN (Vocalist of the Month for 9/14: Ronnie Van Zant)

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(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)

I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.

Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.

Stories like mine.

There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.

But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.

It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.

The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)

Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.

But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.

There were two simple reasons.

Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.

Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.

The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.

If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.

*   *   *   *

When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.

Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.

And that was just the neighbors talking.

By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.

When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.

Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.

Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.

I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.

And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.

You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.

Which he wouldn’t have.

*   *   *   *

Evidence?

Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.

First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.

Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.

So much for “first off.”

Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.

Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.

And I know this much.

You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.

It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.

You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.

But you can never really leave it all the way behind.

Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.

He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.

So he was never going to be “home.”

Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.

Home as haven. Home as trap.

In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.

Pay he did, ultimately.

Here’s what else he managed along the way.

*   *   *   *

In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.

All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.

But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.

They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.

That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

*   *   *   *

The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.

There’s some significance to that, I think.

There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.

It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.

These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.

That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.

Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.

Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.

Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?

And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.

Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).

That’s how it is with genius and concepts.

The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.

It goes its own way.

*   *   *   *

Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.

Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.

The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.

And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”

So it goes

One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.

So what can a genuinely poor boy do?

Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?

Celebrate with warnings?

Switch sides in the middle of a song?

Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?

Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.

It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.

We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.

We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.

Ditto.

And so on and so forth.

*   *   *   *

He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.

He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.

I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.

You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.

Or live to see thirty.

*   *   *   *

The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.

You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?

“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.

You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?

Say the same.

I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.

The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.

Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.

And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.

So forget the “punks.”

If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.

Rest in peace if you can, brother.

Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.

RONNIEVANZANT3

 

THE SCOTTISH LASS GOES SOUTH (Vocalist of the Month for 3/14: Lulu at Atlantic)

“My only sadness is that it didn’t continue until the day I die.”

Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)

By the time Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was signed to the Atco subsidiary of the American soul giant Atlantic Records in the fall of 1969 she was twenty years old and entering the third distinctive phase of her recording career.

In the first phase, which started when she acquired her stage name, Lulu, and fronted a band called the Luvvers, she had made the journey from Glasgow to London and become a British sensation with a knockout cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (her version charted perennially on the British charts for the next three decades).

She was all of fifteen and, despite an occasionally ragged relationship with the beat that was common among the era’s youngest rockers (among true youngsters, only Brenda Lee consistently sang with anything like old-fashioned assurance–rock n’ roll was never as easy as the masters made it sound or the haters wanted you to think), pretty close to being the hardest soul singer the Isles produced. Her enthusiasm occasionally got ahead of her talent in those days but there were some scorching highlights. Her ballad singing was assured from the beginning (she did a particularly lovely job of re-imagining Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night,” as a torch song). And her knockout, hard-rock covers of “Dream Lover” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” are a long way ahead of pretty much anything the young Mick Jagger did in his pre-“Satisfaction” days. Say what you want about Lulu covering the classics but at least she never sounded like she had learned American English phonetically.

That said, the early period was uneven to say the least. Between production values that were oft-times barely professional (a bit of a general problem in England at the time), dicey material (“Choc Ice”…really?) and lack of a clear direction, the voice seldom got its due even on her best records.

That changed somewhat when she signed with Mickie Most (probably England’s top producer of the period), landed an acting gig in the Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir With Love and entered her second phase with a bang.

The title song of To Sir With Love, written by a friend at the by-then seventeen-year-old singer’s request when she refused to sing what the studio had in mind, became Billboard’s official #1 record of 1967 after it was released as a B-side and American dee-jays flipped it. It was also one of the best sung records of the greatest era for vocal music we’re likely to know. One might have thought that Most would know what to do from there–namely run off a series of hit singles, as he had done for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Animals previously (talk about covering some ground), and would do for Hot Chocolate later on.

Instead–and despite a handful of genuinely wonderful records which didn’t do much commercially–he steered her toward ever more banal material, finally climaxing with the already world-famous Lulu actually winning the Eurovision Song contest (usually reserved for those still chasing their fortune) for 1969 with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which the singer herself has occasionally–and with some justification–referred to as possibly the worst song ever written.

Unlike most of the really good records she and Most had made together, it was a substantial hit, at least in England and Europe.

The disconnect between quality and success guaranteed a lot of sleepless nights, crying jags, and the absolute certainty that she would not renew her contract with Most when it ended a few months after the Eurovision win.

While all that was going on, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the only female British singer who was a talent-match for Lulu (and who was, perhaps understandably, going by “Dusty Springfield”) had signed with Atlantic Records, a label known mostly for deep soul acts, and gone South to make an album which came to be called Dusty In Memphis. In addition to being one of the greatest albums ever made–“vocal” or otherwise–Dusty In Memphis produced a big hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and set Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler searching for more of the same.

It turned out to be an artistically satisfying venture which bore relatively little commercial fruit. Eventually, Jackie DeShannon, Betty LaVette and Cher would each get her turn. And Jackie and Cher at least got their records released (with Jackie’s being a classic in its own right…I haven’t heard Cher’s Atlantic sessions, though they eventually got a CD release on Rhino Handmade). Betty had to wait another thirty years and achieve an unlikely late-career discovery by the Public-At-Large for her fine sides to even see the light of day.

Lots of amazing music then.

But Lulu was the next in line and the music she recorded between the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1972 constitutes a body of work that bears comparison to anything that was going on anywhere in the period.

It probably helped that Wexler and others (Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, like that) still had the wind of Springfield’s success at their backs when they all went back South (Muscle Shoals this time…with Duane Allman sitting in) to record New Routes.

The album concedes nothing to Dusty in Memphis except that Dusty’s is perfect and New Routes has a misguided version of “Mr. Bojangles” that features an awkward gender rewrite which pretty much undermines an otherwise great sounding record. (i.e., Lulu couldn’t very well pretend to be sharing a jail cell with Bojangles, so they are in….a park! Ouch.)

But that album or the next (Melody Fair, recorded in Miami with another crack southern session unit, the Dixie Flyers), both long afterwards available only on reasonably scarce vinyl (my used copy of New Routes came with a sticker that read “Duane Allman!!!”…cool people, having received their values from the crit-illuminati need to know why a price has been boosted from the usual $0.99 to $2.99!!!), are, amazingly, not the entire point of the great 2007 package Lulu: The Atco Sessions, 1969-72.

There you get two discs–the first covering the two released albums, the second collecting various singles, alternates and unreleased material.

As a listening experience, it’s of a piece. Heartbreaking for itself (there is no more plaintive voice and it was never more consistently plaintive than here…you can ask Lulu fans like Aretha Franklin and Al Green if you need further testimony) and for the different kind of break it so definitively represents–a kind of last look back before the rise of the machines.

This package is the sound of a singer who had already successfully traversed hard-edged rock and R&B and classy pop and was now remarried to her first love: straight soul music.

From this distance, it’s easy to hear just how fragile the moment was. Between bombastic rock and sleek dance music, glorious though much of it would be, amplifiers and synthesizers were setting the stage for the re-caging of the liberating human voices which rock and soul had brought to the center of Pop Culture–which, as I occasionally note here, was already the only culture America had left.

I don’t think you necessarily need that context to hear the fundamental sadness-tinged-with-liberating-joy that characterized these sessions. But knowing the context makes that quality inescapable.

Maybe because she had such an oddly shaped career (she went from these sessions to a fling with David Bowie–studio only–that produced a few truly great sides but, again, no real overarching vision) Lulu is a bit of an odd duck historically: a respected singer who isn’t quite revered; a commercial singer whose hits are strung out here and there over a couple of decades; a fine live performer who was always in the moment but rarely on top of it.

But she was also the kind of singer who used to arrive on the charts on a regular basis–distinctive, soulful, possessed of a genuine ache that never descended into phony angst or belting for the sake of belting–and do not arrive at all anymore.

And her time at Atlantic, at least, was priceless. She’s not the only one who regrets that it didn’t continue until the day she died.

So, beginning with a track that was straight and hard enough to fit right in on the (equally priceless) What It Is!  funk box set a few years back and proceeding through the soul and pop part of our evening before finishing with a lovely and moving homage to shag haircuts:

HARD LUCK WOMAN (Evie Sands: Vocalist of the Month, 9/13)

Evie Sands was one of rock and roll’s great near-misses and great lost voices.

So it sort of makes sense that I discovered her in a case of forty-fives a friend of mine swapped me during our senior year in high school for helping him cheat on an algebra test that he ultimately failed anyway.

I suspect the main reason he went ahead and made the deal despite being grounded for the rest of the school year by my inability to lift him over the line–and thereby losing the stakes that made it a big enough deal for him to consider cheating in the first place (studying, of course, was simply not a cool option)–was because they were his sister’s forty-fives.

He swore she’d never miss them.

Since I already had enough vinyl in my veins to risk flunking a teacher’s aide class on my way to graduation day–don’t worry, when I was trying to change those neat little minuses into neat little pluses with a mechanical pencil the teacher knew good and well had no place in grading papers (red markers were preferred then as doubtless they still are), he was looking straight over at me, which told me that Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about guilt and that, having cooked up this deal less than forty-eight hours earlier, my friend had probably spent some part of the interim running his mouth about how he had the test in the bag because he had me in the bag–it’s more than a little likely I would have run into Evie somewhere along the way.

Still, that particular forty-five of hers that was hiding in a stack of my friend’s sister’s purloined stash represented a real marker in my development as a record fanatic.

I had already noticed that some records I loved didn’t stay on the radio very long, but when it came to judging the past I was stuck with what still lingered in the air or in the written record–in oldies’ formats or K-tel commercials or my trusty chart books or even stray conversations with people who had been around “back then.”

You know, back in the good old days of five or ten years before when I was technically alive but thoroughly oblivious.

But Sands and her record fit no ready frame of reference in my 1978 world. So “Any Way That You Want Me,” which had come out when I was eight years old, reached me like a talisman from a lost time.

Odd that is had this peculiar effect, because by 1978 I had actually heard enough “oldies” to know that a lot of the record’s elements were perhaps over-familiar. To, in effect, know what I didn’t know.

I did not know, for instance, that the bridge was a direct lift from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but if somebody had told me it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, hadn’t the Doors ripped the intro to “Touch Me” from the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne?” Sure they had. And didn’t I like springing that one on anybody who thought the Doors were the coolest band ever and made retching noises any time Frankie Valli’s name came up?

Sure I did.

I didn’t doubt there were a lot of reasons why “Any Way That You Want Me” couldn’t be heard on the radio anymore (if it ever had been), why there were no tantalizing snippets on cheesy TV ads, why there was no mention of it in my chart or reference books, which in those days, never seemed to stretch to include anything which hadn’t made the Top 40 unless it was from some serious “artist”’s cool album.

Believe me, I knew Evie Sands singing “Any Way That You Want Me’ wasn’t cool.

I’d have known that much even if it hadn’t been pilfered from a girl.

Maybe some place. Maybe some time.

Not where I lived. Not then.

I even knew–sort of–that there might be troubling socio-political implications in the lyric scenario of a woman pleading with a man to take her any way he’ll have her.

I also knew none of that mattered.

Because the two things that grabbed me were the tone of desperate pleading and the quality of the singer’s voice.

I related.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to stop caring about what is cool.

Evie Sands made lots of fine records. As an up and comer with big talent in the New York scene that was turning out the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, she should have had a hit with “Take Me For a Little While” in the mid-sixties. Should have, that is, except that somebody swiped the master, took it to Chicago, cut it with soul singer Jackie Ross (who wasn’t aware of the subterfuge), got it on the streets first and muddied the waters so badly that neither version ended up charting nationally even though both caught fire wherever they were played. The fallout within the industry was bad enough to scotch Evie’s followup “I Can’t Let Go,” which was stronger than the hit versions by either the Hollies or, much later, Linda Ronstadt (two artists I happen to love).

Not too long after that the great writer/producer Chip Taylor waxed his masterpiece “Angel of the Morning” with her (after Connie Francis reportedly turned it down) and, again, her killer version took off in numerous local markets.

The orders poured in just as the record label was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.

Not long after, Merrilee Rush cut an equally killer version for a record company that wasn’t going bankrupt and her take soared into the top ten, becoming a permanent radio fixture and a direct model for Juice Newton’s big hit in the early eighties.

So it went, until “Any Way That You Want Me” was released in 1969.

It wasn’t quite as much a mystery in its own time as it was a decade later when I encountered it somewhere in the middle of my friend’s sister’s nice little collection of Three Dog Night and Jackson 5 and Isley Brothers’ records and felt myself getting–as the retro-phrase now often used for entirely separate reasons to describe those years goes–dazed and confused.

Like Sands’ earlier major efforts, the record had been a big hit in a bunch of different local markets, including Birmingham, Alabama, which probably had at least some influence on the southern Alabama region that contained the Top 40 stations for the section of the Florida Panhandle where I would pass through high school–the market, that is, where high school girls who had gone off to college by the time I came along and left their forty-five collections unprotected from their dope-smoking, not-into-studying-but-really-don’t-want-to-get-grounded little brothers, were likely to hear the records that drove them into stores with whatever part of their baby-sitting money went for something to spin on the Dansette.

So, unlike those previous near-misses, “Any Way That You Want Me” did not sink without a trace, to await the high end collectors who have kept Evie Sands’ name alive in the collective memory bank, two, three and four decades on. It was, in fact, something of a hit, reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 nationally and selling around 500,000 copies.

Even then, something held it slightly in check. It rambled around the middle of the charts and became (with, of all things, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”) the record that spent the most time on Billboard‘s main chart without cracking the top 50.

Seventeen weeks as it happened.

There have been plenty of top ten and even #1 records that spent less.

Something, then, kept it from breaking out all the way.

Perhaps the fact that the Troggs, who had hit #1 a couple of summers earlier with Taylor’s “Wild Thing”–as far from the sensibilities of “Any Way That You Want Me” as Void is from the Creation (I’ll leave it to each Earthling to decide for his or herself which record is which, and just gently remind all and sundry that one cannot exist without the other)–had released a hit version in the UK in 1966, tipped the Cosmos just slightly.

Or maybe Evie’s version was simply a little too strong, a little too mysterious, contained just a little too much genuine ache, to find its home anywhere but the edge of the frame.

Maybe it was destined to remain half-hidden, waiting for us kindred spirits to discover it by our own haphazard methods.

Some records are like that.

Evie’s career went on for a bit–was, in fact, just winding down when my path intersected hers.

She got an album out of the single’s success and it’s quite fine, featuring the kind of soulful, folkish material that smoky-voiced goddesses like Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Gentry were doing around the same time and, strictly as a vocalist, Sands was very much in their league, even as the plaintive aspects of her timbre put her in a league of her own.

In my world–then and now–that’s saying something.

Unfortunately, the future was already behind her. The chance for sustained, long term success had already flown. There were a couple of modest hits later in the seventies. A couple of decades further along, there was a reunion with Chip Taylor and his partner, Al Gorgoni, which produced a lovely CD called Women In Prison. She still tours and occasionally produces other artists.

The early days are still where the magic is, though.

The magic and the ache.

Boats against the current.

What might have been.

You know the drill.

I happened to first encounter her in that phase of any music lover’s life when discoveries are happening on a near-daily basis. But I suspect that she would have broken through with spectacular force whenever and wherever I found her.

Heck, I don’t even suspect. I know.

I live in America in the age of decline and fall and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The past never seems nearer and dearer than when we know the future is behind us.

Even if it only hit #53 in Billboard!

 

WELL, HERE’S ANOTHER ONE BORN STANDING UP AND TALKING BACK (Stevie Nicks–Vocalist of the Month, 8/13)

First some actual history (which you’ll need, in order to comprehend just how little sense is contained in some of the statements posted immediately thereafter):

Chart action for Fleetwood Mac’s first five singles after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band in 1975:

Song                                   Entered chart        Peak Pos (Billboard Hot 100)
(Lead Singer)

From Fleetwood Mac:

Over My Head
(Christine McVie)               11/8/75                 #20 (14 weeks on the Chart)
Rhiannon
(Stevie Nicks)                      3/6/76                  #11 (18 weeks)
Say You Love Me
(Christine McVie)                 7/4/76                  #11 (19 weeks)

From Rumours:

Go Your Own Way
(Lindsey Buckingham)        1/8/77                  #10 (15 weeks)
Dreams
(Stevie Nicks)                    4/16/77                   #1 (19 weeks)
Don’t Stop
(Christine McVie)                7/9/77                    #3 (18 weeks)
You Make Loving Fun
(Christine McVie)            10/15/77                    #9 (14 weeks)

And now, bearing all that in mind, a bit of commentary:

“The ‘Fleetwood Mac’ herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks.”

(Source: Elvis Costello, “Costello’s 500: Elvis Costello picks the 500 Greatest Albums Ever”, Vanity Fair, November, 2000)

“Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than twelve million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’ should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by ‘Dreams,’ a soft ballad, which sailed easily to number one. ‘Go Your Own Way’ was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, hammering, the singer moaning and threatening, pleading and damning; it didn’t let up for a second.

“Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest: instead it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo–a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did–the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: ‘Dreams’ hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while ‘Go Your Own Way’ has never been off the air.”

Greil Marcus (Source: “Music,” Artforum, March 1987. Reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, 1994)

MJB (Mary J. Blige): That is amazing. That song is so simple but very strong, like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/Players only love you when they’re playing.” That line [from “Dreams”]is so amazing.

SN (Stevie Nicks): Isn’t it weird how today some people we know [in the music business] are referred to as ‘total players’? And that’s really what I was saying when I wrote that in 1976. ‘Players only love you when they’re playing,’ which means as a woman in rock, many of the different affairs and relationships I had were built around the music and being on tour. And then, when the music was over, the relationships were over.

MJB: I felt that. I can hear that. I don’t think that kind of stuff ever changes, you just get wiser or dumber about it.

(Source: Stevie Nicks interviewing Mary J. Blige, Interview Magazine, Feb. 2008)

“Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful–when he was happy with me.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, VHI Classic Albums–Rumours)

“Whatever Stevie’s music was, somehow I was this soul mate, that just knew exactly what to do with it. And that never went away, it just became a little bittersweet, in terms of WANTING to do it. There were times when I had the urge not to want to help her.”

(Source: Lindsey Buckingham, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“‘Dreams’ was hopeful. You know, it saw the breakup coming but it was hopeful that we would be okay, unlike ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which was not hopeful that we would be okay, you know? That was the thing that Lindsey and I argued about a lot, was that I try to be somewhat optimistic. In my songs, somewhere, you know, to pull out some kind of ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t make up stories. They have to be real.”

(Source; Stevie Nicks, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“The songs that he wrote about me were horrifying. You know ‘Go Your Own Way’ is one way to say…the really worst thing you know?….You know, ‘shacking up is all you want to do,’ which was not true! And I had to listen to him sing it on stage every night and he’d look at me when he’d say it and I would just be going, ‘You know, don’t look at me when you say that!’ that tender love song that you wrote for me, you know…How mean.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac documentary footage, circa 1990’s)

“Tolerable in a group that was vying for a Dorian Gray medallion by decade’s end, she proved a menace solo, equally unhealthy as role model and sex object.”

“not a diva–a transgendered arena-rock god in all his/her grand self-regard”

(Source: Noted feminist Robert Christgau’s entire commentary on Stevie Nicks’ solo career, Christgau’s Consumer Guide–first quote from 1980’s edition, 2nd quote from 1990’s review of Time Space: The Best of Stevie Nicks)

“‘Women, shit!’ the tall convict said.”

(Source: William Faulkner, final line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem–aka, The Wild Palms, 1939)

And now, an attempt to wrest some sort of meaning from this tangle:

Stevie Nicks stomped through the California Rock scene in the seventies the way Michelle Phillips had done in the sixties: taking scalps, sampling the moment’s hip drugs, providing a certain aura of quintessence. That much they had in common.

There were some differences.

Michelle Phillips was a good harmony singer who needed confidence lessons from Mama Cass out front no matter how many A-list movie stars bowed down at her feet behind closed doors. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew her place.

Stevie Nicks was a strong writer, a mesmerizing, cantankerous front woman, and one of the greatest singers of the rock era. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew it wasn’t her place to bow down to anybody.

The quotes above are representive, but, even without them, there would be no need to guess which one drove the crit-illuminati stone cold crazy.

That might seem a little strong ,but when the lady in question has people pretending (that’s the kindest word I can think of to describe someone claiming the radio has ever stopped playing “Dreams”) that your biggest hit left the air for good when it “dropped from the charts,” to make way, ultimately, for the most famous of the “horrifying” songs your ex wrote about you, then, well, “stone cold crazy” seems just about right.

And it seems just about right even before one gets to such enlightened fare as “transgendered arena rock god” (written at just about the last moment when a Liberal-Playing-at-Radical like Christgau could use “transgendered” an an insult before the next round of re-education set in–there will, of course, never be a moment when the wrong sort of woman can’t be described as a “menace” by the cramped souls in the cheap seats or when “unhealthy…sex object” isn’t code for either cooties or VD). At that point, I guess she should just be grateful for the small favors: the occasional backhanded compliment–the term “guilty pleasure” comes up a lot–and whatever relief she can manage to feel that we don’t still dip witches in the village pond and hang ’em if they don’t drown.

For the record, Fleetwood Mac went from being a very good band to an important one the moment Stevie Nicks (and, yes, Lindsey Buckingham) joined it and went from being an important band to a very good one the moment she (not Buckingham) decided to focus most of her energy on one of the very few major solo careers any singer who got famous in a rock band has ever managed (and, near as I can tell, the only one anyone has ever managed on a similar scale without ever really leaving their original band).

To steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson, another misunderstood seventies-era visionary, in Fleetwood Mac’s truly epic period, Stevie Nicks was the straw that stirred the drink and everybody, including the other members of the band, pretty well knew it.

That does not mean she was musically more important than the others. That’s a totally different call. It would, for instance, be hard to be more important than Lindsey Buckingham himself, who, as an ace singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, was an extremely rare quadruple threat. And nobody ever said Christine McVie was anything but a great singer, or that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were anything but an awesome rhythm section. I mean, one measure of just how great Fleetwood Mac was at that point was that Stevie Nicks didn’t completely dominate it.

But she was the combustible element. And if you listen to the albums the band made in the five years before she showed up–or even the scorching guitar blues records made by the original lineup Elvis Costello loves so much in the years before that–what you hear, always, is a real good band that was very much in need of some combustion.

How she managed this was some blend of “bleeding obvious” (there was the talent, the drop-dead looks, the tendency to actually dress like a witch, or at least like nobody else) and “who the hell knows?” (whatever was inside her that drew great, angry songs like “Go Your Own Way” out of Buckingham, whose real passions otherwise were mostly for techno wizardry, or that lifted Christine McVie out of her previously–and subsequently–unbreachable comfort zone, or that made Mick Fleetwood figure he had to get in the scalp line himself at least once, and so on and so forth).

Whatever her “it” factor finally was, the public nearly always responded to it just a little bit more than it responded to the rest of the group.

The extent to which Buckingham–or the record company, or somebody–would go to counter this effect seems to have been considerable. “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman” were natural singles from their respective era-defining albums that went unreleased–and got picked up by the radio and played for the next forty years anyway. “Silver Springs” was left off of Rumours (where it would have been one of the strongest tracks on one of the greatest albums ever made) for “time and length” reasons that have always sounded frankly ridiculous. Released as the flip of–get this–“Go Your Own Way,” it became arguably the most famous B-side to come out after the 1960’s (when flip-hits were still pretty common) and has constantly bobbed to the surface on various re-releases ever since. (And it’s another measure of how great Fleetwood Mac was that they could leave a track as strong as “Silver Springs” off an album that was following a jillion-seller without knocking a hole in the boat.)

The upshot of all of that and more was that every attempt to rig the game in the alpha-male’s favor effectively backfired.

Partly this was just due to the quality of Nicks’ voice. She was, without much doubt, the most prominent and gifted heir of Brenda Lee-style husk and Lee had been the most popular female vocalist of the sixties. And being gorgeous never hurts commercially. Hard to hide all that.

But I think those qualities still come a long way behind the main factor–the real reason I suspect Nicks has been inordinately popular among the women vocalists who have come after and seems to strike an especially strong chord with hip-hop era black women.

To put it as succinctly as I know how: Stevie talked back.

Not only that, she talked back in a direct and forceful way that hadn’t happened quite so forcefully and directly before in rock or pretty much anywhere else. She talked back–directly–to a man who was somewhat obsessed with publicly–and directly–cutting her down. And who very pointedly wasn’t going to make up with her in the last reel. Whatever the realities of her relationship with Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s transcendent period, whoever was really to blame for what, that was the way the dynamic played out in public.

“Go Your Own Way” hit the radio and the record bins and, despite Greil Marcus’ delusional claim otherwise, was in fact a very big hit. A very big hit which was a straightforward “you-know-she’s-really-a-whore/slut-don’t-you?” attack on the woman singing harmony and standing next to him on stage every night–a harmony and a stage presence, incidentally, that won him a degree of fame he, for all his talent, almost certainly never could have achieved without her.

That was strange enough by itself–at least as weird as any dynamic that had ever existed in the Mamas and the Papas or the Jefferson Airplane or Abba.

But Grace Slick tended to write and sing more memorably about the times than her feelings and the other women in those groups didn’t write at all, so it meant something different when you could flip the 45 of “Go Your Own Way” and listen to “Silver Springs” not as a throwaway, but as an equally great record that literally told the other side of the story.

And if anybody wanted to wait four months until “Go Your Own Way” dropped off the charts (after performing right in line with the band’s previous singles), then they could hear “Dreams” following hard after–“Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” chased onto the airwaves by, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down?”

That sort of thing might (or might not) seem fairly mundane now, a generation and a half after riot girl power erupted (in the underground at least). But it wasn’t mundane then. If you wanted to hear some sort of female empowerment in the mid-seventies Top 40, you mostly would be settling for songs about hanging in there like “I Will Survive.” Great record, no doubt–and necessary–but it wasn’t exactly moving the ball forward.

That’s where Stevie Nicks came in.

Not only did she offer in-time responses to age-old attacks on “wanton” women, but these were responses that rang out like gentle curses. The woman who could rock as hard as anybody alive tended to whisper when, without turning around, she was–magically if you will–parrying the knives aimed at her back.

So in a sense, for all that she accomplished after–a solo career that produced another solid handful of radio staples (and not a few magnificent performances–see below), a decade or more as rock’s go-to harmony session singer (which made her as much a descendant of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as of Brenda Lee), a career as a “role model” that worked out just fine no matter how many rock critics followed Lindsey Buckingham’s lead–her place in the pantheon was secure the minute “Dreams”–that “soft ballad” that worked as a knowing, inescapable psychic knee in the groin of the sexual element of male privilege that, no matter how far we think “civilization” has come, is still the foundation stone upon which all the other privileges are built–started up the charts.

That makes “Dreams” a pretty big deal even now. Because if that was all there was to Stevie Nicks, it would be enough. If there were no cataclysmic live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” no glorious throwaways like her Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson covers, no definitive take on “Silent Night,” no bridge to transcendence on the version of “The Insider” that appears on Tom Petty’s 30th Anniversary Concert DVD, no three and half additional decades of popping up from the ether every few years and reminding us who she really is, there would still be “Dreams,” the song that made the crit-illuminati start lying their collective asses off the moment it appeared and has never stopped annoying them since.

Of course it was inevitable (more or less) that all that other stuff would exist–once the impulses that created “Dreams” did. There was no way anyone as driven and gifted as Nicks was going to remain in the shadows, or go back to them once she had fully emerged–and frankly she had already emerged before “Dreams” was a record. Probably even before it was an idea. I’m not even sure it’s her signature record. Plenty would vote for “Rhiannon” or “Landslide,” and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.

But “Dreams” was the no-going-back point. The way into the future.

Not the first time a woman stood toe to toe with men generally. That had happened plenty–even in rock.

Just the first time a woman stood toe-to-toe with the particular man who was saying particular things about her.

In the same band.

Or, as Elvis Costello would have it (and I’m sure the fact that he was never able to stay on the radio himself had nothing to do with his failure to comprehend all this), in a “Californian mob,” which, of course, happened to be three-fifth’s English.

Goodness knows we should be used to the six thousand degrees of separation from reality that the boys with the thinking caps and the typewriter minds practice by now, let alone the sort of rock musician who lives to impress them.

But I’m pausing here, this particular month, to celebrate the woman who made the idea that we should accept it utterly obsolete the minute she showed up.

Annoy on, lady. I’m with you.

Fleetwood Mac “Rhiannon” (Live on The Midnight Special: 1976)

Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” (Live Performance: 1977)

Stevie Nicks “Edge of Seventeen” (Live at Red Rock: 1986)

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty “The Insider” (Live Performance, 2006)

Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak “It’s Late” (Live on Television: 2009)

 (NOTE: Steven Rubio has rightly pointed out in comments that Brenda Lee being the most popular female vocalist of the 1960s is a contestable statement. I just want to clarify that I was referencing Joel Whitburn’s Billboard research, specifically Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999, which places Brenda third overall for the decade behind the Beatles and Elvis and, of course, first among female vocalists. As I’ve explained in a number of my Elvis posts, “charts” are not definitive barometers of “popularity.” But they are the only useful objective public evidence that exists. Apologies for the short-hand and thanks to Steven for pointing out the need for a clarification.)

 

MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT…(Glenda Collins, Vocalist of the Month for 7/13)

So four whole months into my Vocalist of the Month category, I’ve basically figured out that sometimes it’s gonna be eight thousand words and sometimes it’s gonna be closer to eight. That’s the fun of it.

I had planned for Stevie Nicks to be featured in July but I’m a thought and a half short of finishing a long piece on her, so–in the interests of keeping this blog free of silly deadlines–I decided I would keep it simple and harken back to another, slightly less famous, Brenda Lee acolyte (Stevie took Brenda’s timbre, Glenda took her phrasing).

Collins was known–to the extent she was known at all–for being a sort-of discovery of the legendary British producer Joe Meek (she had recorded before, but he must have thought she had something because he kept trying and he was a man who had kicked David Bowie, the Beatles and Rod Stewart to the curb, among others).

Meek had put a record on top of the American charts two years before the Beatles (“Telstar” by the Tornadoes). He was a contemporary of Phil Spector and fellow mad obsessive, right down to eventually killing an innocent woman to prove he really was crazy, though Meek did it forty years earlier and at least had the decency to off himself immediately afterwards.

Glenda Collins was as good a singer as Meek ever chose to work with, but, truth be told, she was also, for the most part, a good singer in search of an identity.

Just once, though, on a record produced by Meek–and, evidently, recording her vocal in a bathroom–she found the sort of magic that makes rock and roll eternally bottomless.

Like all of her other records–all her pretty good records that is–it was not a hit.

Every time I hear it, I can hear why it wasn’t a hit in this world. And I can also hear why it would have been a smash–the smash I can easily imagine she believed (and had every right to believe) it would be when she heard the playback–in that slightly better world that seems to be resting permanently just out of reach.

Like a lot of one-shot rock and rollers, she’s got a little piece of forever anyway.

As Orson Welles used to say….It only takes one.

Glenda Collins “Something I’ve Got To Tell You” (Studio Recording…No idea if the cheesecake photo at the end is her!)

 

THE ICEMAN COMETH AND THE WORLD AWAKENS (Jerry Butler, Vocalist of the Month–June, 2013)

Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).

Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.

There is certainly some validity to that.

But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.

That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.

Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.

But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).

Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).

Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.

To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.

As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.

The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).

According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.

“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”

What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”

What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.

*  *  *  *

For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.

The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.

As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).

As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)

Fourth act?

Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).

Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.

Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).

Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.

And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.

Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.

We shouldn’t really be surprised.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.

I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.

If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.

*  *  *  *

So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?

Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–

…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”

or, better yet…

“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”

Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.

But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”

Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.

In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.

Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.

And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.

That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.

His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.

Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”

It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.

“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.

A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.

Ours did not.

After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.

But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.

What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.

It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.

Don’t throw this away.

Don’t throw US away.

In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.

It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.

And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us:

 

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION? (Vocalist of the Month–Mary Travers RIP Redux)

[NOTE: As usual, things are goin’ on, so I’m a little late with my Vocalist of the Month for May. I intended it to be Jerry Butler and I got most of the piece written, but I’m still an organized thought or two away from finishing it, so I’m going to cheat a little and use this as an excuse to post my obituary for Mary Travers, which Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute on the net in the wake of her passing. The piece has been slightly modified to sharpen a phrase or two but, from where I stand, what I said then, regarding either Mary or the world, isn’t any less true now–except that the “draconian powers” I mention below have indeed been “assumed” by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it will almost certainly take a replay of the sixties, which we are almost certainly not up for, to assume them back. Goodbye us.]

In the days leading up to the Iraq war nothing made that modern media invention–the conscience-stricken hawk–quite as queasy as the spectre of the “Peter, Paul and Mary liberal” turning the new adventure into “another Viet Nam.”

That kind of insight was, of course, less than brilliant on infinite levels, but there was some justice in the basic underlying unease: the special relationship between music and politics that’s now called to mind by the catch-all phrase “the sixties” was not, after all, just some weird accident.

The stark, unsettling contradictions that boiled to the surface in that generation have been wallowing in the American psyche since the beginning and are with us still, while the notion that musicians and other artists should confront them is, if not quite that old, at least far, far older than the recording industry.

By contrast, a reality where this very confrontation could produce gold records–and the powerful, insidious, ear-worm relevance in modern American life that this generally implies–was entirely modern and called forth very specifically by three earnest folkies who, as if to prove history really does have a sense of humor, were assembled by a quasi-corporate process not all that different from the ones that later produced the Monkees and the Back Street Boys.

Partly for those reasons, the group was something of a punching bag among the hipper-than-thou left–particularly that part of it which gave up on the dream long before Peter, Paul or Mary did–even before their massive success began to haunt bigots and mad bombers alike.

At least some of that was envy, but for art to work as politics the art has to come first and P,P&M had two elements of genius. The first was the magical “other” that is created when the members of any great harmony group blend their voices.

The second was Mary Travers.

It was Travers who gave the group’s sleek sound the gravitas it needed to become a dividing line and a cultural force that went far beyond selling records. A lot of what Peter, Paul and Mary did–children’s songs, stale stage-patter, tiresome renditions of “true” folk songs by way of Merry Olde England–was innocuous or worse and can safely be consigned to the nostalgia bin if not the dust bin.

What’s left are a number of fine performances that include a couple of dozen diamond-pure sides that did what art very, very rarely does–changed things.

Nearly every one of those sides featured Mary Travers as either lead or de facto soloist.

It was her voice that put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time (not scraping the charts, incidentally, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” all the way to #2); her voice that brought Pete Seeger back to the top ten after nearly a decade in blacklisted exile–not with Weavers-style balladry but with a political anthem; her voice wailing on the key line in Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” that makes it sound even now like something college kids really would call forth as naturally as breathing when they were being beaten with night-sticks and tossed into paddy wagons at the “liberal” Democratic Convention in 1968.

The paraphrased poetry of “the whole world is watching” was Dylan’s but it was almost certainly Travers who Middle America heard when the fragment echoed across evening news newscasts or turned up in quotes in the morning newspapers, just as it was effectively Travers, almost alone, who first put “protest” music into the proverbial million living rooms where Martin Luther King might as well have been the antichrist.

It wasn’t for nothing that Civil Rights paragon Ossie Davis–as righteous a defender as African-American culture will ever have–called her white-bread folk group “the movement set to music.”

All of that would make her one of the most important voices of the century but she could be even better.

“500 Miles” was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.

And where “500 Miles” was a pure abstraction–a reach for something that could be grasped but not quite held–“Leaving on a Jet Plane” was utterly prosaic. Travers simply took John Denver’s best song–a fine, if conventional take on that most jealously guarded male prerogative, i.e., the freedom to come and go and have the little woman wait for you to make up your mind–and turned it inside out.

What was left was possibly the strangest hit record of the entire rock and roll era. At once thoroughly radical and profoundly reassuring, recorded just as the women’s movement was taking off, it made no grand statements in the manner of “Respect” or “I Am Woman,” or even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” but instead simply took for granted everything genuinely useful such a movement might achieve (all the more remarkable since Travers had recorded it in 1966–the same year as the brassy “Boots” and well before the others. Where others proclaimed, Travers simply made the most powerful assumption of all. That the right to make the most profound decisions in a relationship was no more than her–or anyone’s–just due. She called special attention to nothing–and missed nothing. The freedom and attendant responsibility that lay behind her bold assumptions got exactly the weight they deserved and no more, lessons that have been missed by generations of male rock critics and elite “feminist” scholars alike, but were likely not lost on the wave of female singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, et al) who were about to leave their own deep mark.

It was perhaps appropriate for “Jet Plane” to hit number one in the last month of a decade synonymous with tumult. It seems at least possible that after a deluge of assassination and war and riot, the culture simply took that highly symbolic occasion to draw a deep breath and reach back for some sense of itself, for some reminder of the bedrock that would be waiting when the brick and mortar stopped flying. If cultures can do such things–and if ours did such a thing at that moment–it is both supremely ironic and completely unsurprising that it was Travers’ voice (on a by then three-year-old album track) we reached for.

The critic Ralph Gleason once famously called Peter, Paul and Mary “two rabbis and a hooker,” and to be honest that’s one of the funniest things any critic has ever said. But the real joke is that it was the hooker–not the rabbis or the critic–who turned out to have the biblical voice.

Before her, the great voices of American protest music remained in the underground or on the sidelines. Before her, if a “folk” group had a really big hit it was “Good Night Irene” or “Tom Dooley” or, “Michael” (as in row the boat gently and safely ashore). Before her, if Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it could scrape the charts for a week before being banned (and effectively ending the singer’s substantial career as a hit-maker). Before her, there was no way Woody Guthrie singing “Deportee” or Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” or, for that matter, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” could get anywhere near a chart.

After her, there was no way “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son,” or “Ohio,” or “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” or “Born In the U.S.A.” or “The World Is a Ghetto,” or “What’s Going On” or “Fight the Power” could miss.

As we head into an age when the party of “limited” government (which, laughably, still goes by the name Republican) has laid the groundwork for an assumption of draconian federal powers which the old House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Pete Seeger would never have dreamed possible, the American music charts are, in most ways, as free of pointed, topical relevance as they were in 1961 and every year prior. These days even so-called “hardcore” rappers and punks confine their protests to their albums. Few others bother with even that much.

I’d like to think that the moment is always right for some new version of Mary Travers to stick a fingernail in the side of today’s newer, tougher version of plastic culture and slit a seam that will allow for a new blast of fresh air.

I’ll keep on hoping for it, but I won’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, be holding my breath.

Truth is, the blonde chick in Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to her reward and I have a funny feeling they only made one of her.

Mary Travers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Live on Television, 1982 Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion Special)

 

THE AWESOME ONE…THE TRUE STORY OF HOW THAT DAMN PATTY LOVELESS GOT IN MY HEAD AND STAYED THERE

[NOTE: A little over a year into this little adventure this is, by a pretty substantial measure, the longest piece I’ve written for this blog. It was also, rather surprisingly, the most difficult to write. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Being a Patty Loveless fan–I mean a stone cold, dyed-in-the-wool Patty Loveless fan–has always been a bit of a surrealistic experience. It has always meant dealing with a very serious disconnect between truly believing, on the one hand, that she’s a whole lot more than somebody who has made a lot of good albums and won some big awards and realizing, on the other hand, that–even if some people might agree, this notion can still feel more than a bit like barking at the moon.

Yes, there has been perceptive writing (I’d point special attention to David Cantwell’s No Depression reviews which can be found at the magazine’s website; Holly Gleason’s fine liner notes to Sleepless Nights; Bill Friskics-Warren’s lengthy article “Down From the Mountain,” collected in No Depression‘s 2005 anniversary book; and the Laurence Leamer biographical piece from his Three Chords and the Truth referenced below, as well as the treasure trove of media references collected at Patty Loveless.net, by far the best of the websites devoted to her and a model, really, for any fan-site).

And she’s certainly been praised beyond the confines of media devoted specifically to country music, sometimes quite avidly and as far afield as the New York Times, where Terry Teachout once quite truthfully described her being “as passionate and compelling a singer as has ever set foot in Nashville.” Given the best of what Nashville has meant to our music history–and I’ll get to some of the less flattering aspects of what it has meant below–he might as well have said “Anywhere.”

So high praise indeed.

But there are still serious limits on what can be said about an artist within the confines of deadlines, word counts, journalistic objectivity and commerce-driven editorial policies and I don’t know of any artist in any medium–popular or otherwise–who defies those limits as thoroughly as Loveless. Nor do I know any artist of her stature who has received so little even of what the mainstream popular press can hope to offer: Let’s just say there have been no in-depth interviews for Rolling Stone!

So what this really is, is an attempt to understand–to speak from and to the heart in the manner that Loveless’ own music always has. To perhaps bring a new combination of personal and historical perspective to a career that seems to demand such. If music speaks to you more deeply than anything else–and voices speak even more deeply than instruments or orchestration, melodies or lyrics–then your favorite singers end up being the soundtrack of your life and a piece like this is as much by way of paying a debt as praising something I love in hopes that others might either recognize some piece of themselves in my experience (be it with Patty Loveless or someone else) or just have their level of interest piqued or renewed enough to want to think about signing up for this particular ride.

It’s not a debt I, or anyone, can really pay of course. But at least this once I can promise you it’s the very best I could do.]

“I don’t want the music that I’ve recorded….to be forgotten. I hope that I’m doing music that will be remembered, even 100 years from now.”

Patty Loveless (quoted in Montgomery News, 2010)

Patty Loveless “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights” (Live 1987 television performance of the first side of her first LP–also her first single)

Some time around the turn of the millennium I got a call at home from a telemarketing service. Some quality in the plaintive young female voice on the other end kept me from my usual misanthropic reflex to punch the button that severs contact and reverts a telephone to what I’ve always considered its most useful and elegant state–the pleasant hum of the dial tone.

The young woman was selling magazine subscriptions and she sounded so plainly and thoroughly dispirited–as if she could hardly make it through the spiel without apologizing for the excruciating uselessness and stupidity of it all–that I ended up actually taking out a subscription to something or other (with the idea I would cancel it at the earliest possible moment).

Once she had gotten over her obvious surprise that someone was actually buying the product, she asked if I could wait on the line while her boss verified my information.

I said I would and waited for her to put me on hold.

Instead, she broke the script and started talking to me, asking, among other things, where I was from. When I told her I lived in Florida, she asked if I had always lived there.

“Yeah, my whole life,” I said.

Then, in a voice that made her previous attitude sound like an especially rousing version of the Hallelujah Chorus, she said:

“Is there anything to do in Florida?”

After I got over my surprise, I found myself playing Chamber of Commerce advocate. Not what you might call a usual role for me.

I assured her that there was plenty to do in Florida. I think I even mentioned things like beaches (which I never “do” myself–nothing there but water you can’t drink and skin cancer as far as I can tell).

I played up the positive points, though. I would have told far worse lies if I could have made her believe in a brighter future. She had that kind of affect on me.

“I sure wish I was there,” she said. “I’m from West Virginia and there’s nothing to do here.”

“Well,” I said. “You sound pretty young. Maybe you’ll be able to leave some day. Get out and see the world.”

Young as she was, she answered in the pained, wistful voice of a thousand years’ experience teaching hard-earned wisdom to somebody who just fell off the turnip truck.

Nobody leaves West Virginia,” she said.

Then, with an air of settling a judgment.

“Not unless they join the military.”

*  *  *  *

There are a few reasons why I’ve had no trouble remembering this conversation in the years since.

One was the wave of sadness that came over me while it was happening–the knowledge that this moment of defeat–which might have been extremely temporary or just as extremely permanent–was all I would ever know of that young woman.

It was the worst I’ve ever felt for someone I didn’t know personally and that alone might have kept the memory coming back from time to time.

But as it happened….there were reminders….

Not long after, the two most famous faces of the “WMD” phase of the Iraq War–Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England–made their various ways into the national consciousness. A couple of very young women who turned out to have at least one rather striking thing in common: they were both from West Virginia.

I guess you could say they joined the military.

Reminder…

Some time in this past year, I got around to watching Winter’s Bone (set in the Appalachia-gone-west of the Ozarks), and I’m sure that long ago conversation is the reason I found the army recruiting scene the most painful and hopeless moment in a movie that pretty much runs on pain and hopelessness.

Reminder…

Then there’s the blasted non-economy, floating on bubbles that are harder and harder to disguise as actual prosperity. A nice daily reminder of why and how we are so constantly being jostled into the position of hustling each other. Like maybe by taking dead end jobs making cold calls and reading life-sapping pitches designed to make each of us a collaborator in the relentless effort to step on the last loose nickel rattling on the last tile of got-it-on-permanent-sale laminate floor.

Reminder…

So, no, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the sense of fatalism and defeat in that Appalachian voice on my old-fashioned, turn-of-the-millenium telephone line.

Not in this life.

*  *  *  *

Should I be tempted to try, though, Patty Loveless will always be there to call me back.

Loveless isn’t from West Virginia and she never joined the military. She’s from the other side of the proverbial mountain in Eastern Kentucky, though, and it might well have amounted to the same thing.

Except that my long ago correspondent spoke the truth without being entirely accurate. If you’re born with the boot on your throat–or coal dust in your lungs–there are still a few other ways to “leave” besides joining up.

And those ways are real. Of course they are–but Loveless’ way was by far the least likely.

No matter what you’ve heard, talent is rare. Talent-meeting-opportunity rarer still.

Very few indeed manage to ride out on the genius ticket.

*  *  *  *

The bold-faced quote above is probably the closest Patty Loveless has ever come to bragging on herself.

Despite an occasional brash statement in the early days, the traditional country two-step of modesty and self-deprecation has long since come to define both her career and her public persona.

Defined them, that is, even more thoroughly than it does the average country singer’s, which is saying something.

And in her case, I have far less doubt than usual that the definition is “real”–at least as far as it goes.

But I was more than usually glad to come across that “hundred years” quote, because about the time she released her most recent album (2009’s Mountain Soul II, exceptional–and bold–even by her peerless standards) I had come to an inescapable conclusion: I’m sure Patty Loveless is a very nice person, but I’m also skeptical of the idea that anybody produces a quarter-century’s worth of virtually uninterrupted brilliance in circumstances that exist to put limits on that sort of thing (that is, nobody makes sixteen albums in a row–the least of which would be a stand-up moment in any other Nashville career and the pinnacle of all but a handful), without fully intending on some more than usually fervent level to kick every single ass and take every single name.

Strictly non-provable, of course, but sometimes you can’t help what you feel. And sometimes, if you can’t shake a feeling, it’s nice to have some evidence, however scant, that it isn’t all smoke and no fire.

*  *  *  *

Even if she ends up writing the book she some times talks about, I suspect that such evidence as is going to be gathered on Loveless’ very innermost thoughts is likely to remain hard to come by. In a way, that’s all for the best. Because if there’s one other thing I would bet on being the truth in “The Patty Loveless Story,” it’s that she would prefer to be comprehended through a full understanding of her music.

But as far as I know–and despite that share of critical acclaim mentioned above–no one seems to have attempted this on any level deeper or broader than what’s permitted in a record review or a magazine piece. (Apologies in advance to efforts I’m unaware of…and please let me know.)

So if someone’s gonna try to take things at least a small step further–to make a stab at delving into the quasi-mystical side of art and its vagaries without necessarily neglecting history and biography and what not, the truth beyond the facts as it were–I figure an out-of-the-way blog is as good a place as any.

It’s probably wisest to carry out this sort of mission with no one looking over your shoulder.

*  *  *  *

So first, some history:

Loveless may have arrived on country radio with less fanfare than any truly major talent in the history of Nashville.

I got on to her I expect the way a lot of others did–being knocked out by the ease and fluidity of “Chains” and “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” when they hit the radio in the late eighties.

I picked up the concurrent album (1988’s Honky Tonk Angel, launching pad for five hit singles and nonetheless early evidence that she was already up to much more than what could be contained by a radio play list) soon enough and was mildly surprised to find she already had two others out, and had even had a few sizable hits.

More surprising was what these three albums (I acquired the other two in a hot hurry) revealed, which, from my perspective, was this:

“Finally, she’s here.”

(The pronoun was not terribly significant–I’d have thought the same about any male singer who managed to open up so many possibilities all at once while also breaking open commercially.)

Again, I don’t think this idea–or some close variation of it–was unique or even unusual among country music followers at the time.

And if I’m right about that, then I suspect I was far from alone in my subsequent thought either.

Namely:

“I wonder how they’ll screw this one up?”

And by “they,” of course, I meant also “us.”

Easy as it is to blame the complicated series of mostly downbeat, mostly corporate associations that rest behind the operative word “Nashville,” there’s no denying that, when it comes to the care and preservation of popular art, distressingly familiar repeating patterns always require a large degree of audience participation.

If we get the government we deserve, then we surely get the music we deserve, too.

So I’m not letting “us” off the hook. But I do think it’s fair to claim “we” all knew the historical pattern too well to reasonably expect that even someone as promising and gifted as Patty Loveless could really break it.

[And, here, since those who don’t follow country music may not know the standard Nashville drill–i.e., the “history”–I’ll go over the basics briefly:

Big talent shows up–makes great album or two–then good album or three–then mediocre album or ten–or twenty if the image is solid enough to ensure continued sales–collects requisite awards–acquires “legend” status–can play Opry anytime–size of audience outside of Opry for remainder of career to be pretty directly related to maintenance of persona (making an occasional good record does not hurt, but it is by no means necessary).

There are, of course, variations–some version of “outlaw” (like most things in popular culture, much more easily accessed by men than women) being the most reliable.

But those are the basics. Maybe not so different than the rest of show business, then, but the embrace between audience expectations and corporate control is perhaps a little tighter in this model. More constricting you might say.]

And those constrictions–those historical patterns–are not always a bad thing. Not by any means.

Those very constrictions and patterns have produced a ton of great records.

But they do make you wonder…“what if?”

So in one respect, “The Patty Loveless Story” is the answer.

“What if…?”

*  *  *  *

What if somebody managed to take it to the end of the line?

What if one or two great albums turned into ten? Or twelve? Or fifteen and counting?

Since Nashville is bound to run on formulas, what if somebody had the right combination of grit and grace, discipline and inspiration, required to perfect a formula that didn’t wear out?

Not a singles formula (that had been done), or even a series of singles formulas (been done as well, though far less often) but an album formula?

What if somebody set out to sum up not simply some well-defined part of the “country” tradition (that, too, had been done–or was being done–primarily by Loveless’ standout contemporaries like Honky Tonk George and Countrypolitan Randy and Bakersfield Dwight and Bluegrass Ricky and Outlaw Steve, et al), but the whole thing?

What if somebody thought bluegrass and western swing and honky tonk and Bakersfield and countrypolitan and rockabilly and, hell, southern rock and California rock and fifties pop and seventies-style AOR and folk-rock and art song and a lot of other things besides were all part of some larger soundscape that no one had quite defined yet?

And what if somebody sang (and made records) as if all this should be taken for granted, without making any big fuss over it–and kept singing (and making records) that way regardless of whether their career was on the mountain or in the valley at any given moment?

What would that take?

What would that cost?

What would that sound like?

And, not least….

If such a thing did happen to occur…

How would we react?

*  *  *  *

Back in the late eighties, there was certainly no way to predict that Patty Loveless would be the person to answer these questions–questions that had remained safely theoretical until her existence made them palpable and pressing.

All I knew–or at least thought I knew–then, was that she had made three very fine, if slightly uneven, albums which showed an unusual, maybe unprecedented, combination of versatility and ambition. The only thing that was really assured was that whatever check her dreams cared to write, her pipes could cash it (though if I had been paying really strict attention to the trade mags I might have known that she was also making people rather nervous–in Nashville, one sure way to tell if knees are knocking somewhere is when whisper-words start leaking out about somebody’s “pitch control.”)

Promising then, but it was hard to forget how often similar hopes had been dashed before–even by those who had come along only a few years earlier.

The combination was exciting, sure.

But not exactly unheard of.

Over the next few years, the first years of my own response to her music, Loveless–who had fought harder than most to put herself on the map–had more opportunities than most to fall clear off of it.

Her label, which had, according to at least some reliable reports, initially held her back “for her own good” (no, really!), then famously refused to promote her (they had Reba and Wynonna and Trisha to take care of and apparently there was a publicity quota and the manner in which the whole thing was handled very much followed a well-worn blueprint that has, again at least “reportedly,” sounded a death knell to many a burgeoning country career–at least I think that’s where Mandy Barnett and Kelly Willis went). Her vocal chords famously required serious, career-threatening surgery. Her first husband just as famously revealed that she had an abortion while they were married (the soap opera elements reached as far as Wynonna Judd sliding the knife in, on Oprah no less–the morbidly curious who know how to use Google can seek out the details on-line). Her second husband became her producer–and we all knew what sort of history those relationships had! The only thing that had a worse track record than producer/singer marriages in the music business down through the ages was the continued relevance of hard-core or “neotraditional” country singers who refused to soften first the edges, then, soon after, the center of their commitment in the here and now.

Against all that, the only thing Patty Loveless, by then the very model of public reticence, ever had to offer was the music she made. It’s a measure of just how great that music was and is, that it turned out to be enough.

That’s where the genius part came in. Because what happened next doesn’t really happen to mere talent.

The label change turned into a boon. The surgery just gave her the sort of narrative PR writers need to sell a hook. Her old husband’s betrayal merely made her new choice of husbands seem that much wiser, even before the staggering albums they made together improbably took her step-by-step up the mountain to something like country music superstardom–all while pulling off the even more astounding feat of staying happily married.

The gold records turned to platinum, the awards rolled in, the singles charted ever higher (and God what singles they were: “Halfway Down,” “Here I Am,” “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?”…smile probably isn’t the right word for the memories they bring because the least of them had more bite than showed on the surface and the best of them were stabs in the heart, but smiling I am…it’s probably the fire and brimstone in me)–all without the merest trace of the usual compromise.

Heck, if anything, success just made her fiercer, rangier, and when was the last time that happened, in country music or anywhere else?

Somewhere along the way she turned into Nashville’s new version of the singer’s singer and the press (mostly the country and general entertainment press, as the establishment rock press–which always needs to be told what to think about country music and likely wouldn’t have believed the truth about Loveless even if the sources they usually relied on to clue them in had grasped it themselves–chose to mostly ignore her) not only lauded her coal-miner’s-daughter-for-a-new-age biography (probably best profiled in Laurence Leamer’s afore-referenced Three Chords and the Truth, an already deservedly classic account of Nashville’s nuts and bolts, of which the chapter on Loveless is an emotional highlight) but insisted the back-story, even more than the music itself, was proof of her pristine purity.

*  *  *  *

Which seemed funny to me, because somewhere along the way, right in this mid-nineties hey-day actually, I came to a couple more conclusions.

One was that she wasn’t going to quit. She was going to keep right on making great albums that cut deeper and deeper (and eventually added up to far, far more than the considerable sum of their parts), and that she was going to do this irrespective of where the radio or “the business” went.

The other was that an utter absence of the very “purity” which was so frequently cited–the one thing that dominated such narratives as a hard-pressed “entertainment” media could come up with–was her greatest strength.

But that was hardly all of it. At this point, what I thought, or what any other country music fan (or journalist) thought, was beginning to be beside the point. Those who were most comfortable with the idea of Loveless as no more or less than a particularly gifted practitioner of well-established tradition could find plenty of evidence for loving her on that basis alone. Just as somebody like me–who tended to stick her on mix-tapes between say, War and the Rolling Stones; who found her a perfect running mate for Lynyrd Skynyrd or Al Green on road trips; who took her seriously when she reminded people she had been formed by both her hard-scrabble country childhood and the rock singing she did in the drink-til-you-drop Carolina bar scene in her early twenties–could love her for a whole other set of reasons.

So she had carved her own space and no surprise.

It’s not like Ralph Stanley, the greatest living bluegrass singer, was making anything up when he called her voice “lonesome” and, as the years went by, she became a lonesome presence indeed.

A stubborn one, too.

Having got to the top of the mountain the hardest way possible, (the “turned my back on Nashville, married a rock drummer, had an abortion, fell out with my family, sank into drugs and drink all the way up to a serious attempt at suicide, made my way back, crawled my way up the charts, thought I had it made once, then got dump–er, traded away–by my label just before I found out I needed serious throat surgery” way) the next question was whether she would finally give in.

She could have been forgiven for bending at least a little. Especially since she had an “out” built into her original approach–a path she had burned for herself (this is where the lack of purity, and the genius, came in)–the path that was now brightly lit by the easy assimilation of modern phrasing (which was really just her phrasing, no matter how quickly others caught on and made it seem like it had been in the air all along, just waiting for any-old-body to breathe it in as inspiration and breathe it right back out as money in the bank) into the old reliable lyrical themes and ever-more-lightly twanged accents by one freshly-minted, born-in-the-suburbs superstar after another who couldn’t hold her coat.

Yes, it would have been easy to bend, given that she was now being hotly pursued by virtually every singer in Nashville who didn’t fit the laconic male model that stretches back as far as the music itself (and which is, at least for now, the only standard Nashville model that has survived the long, hard years since, though I should hasten to add that it has done no more than survive).

Very easy indeed…It’s okay to bend Patty. We’ll forgive you…

*   *   *   *

She did not bend.

She did wind it down with a new sort of formula:

Win the big awards (CMA Album of the Year in 1995, at the time a stretcher of an achievement for either a woman or a hard country singer, and a belief-defying one for an actual hillbilly who was both; CMA Female Vocalist of the year in 1996; ACM’s equivalent in 1996 and 1997).

Release one more great album (1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome–ha, ha, ha, get it?). Bleed it out with a closing track called “Where I’m Bound,” that might be her singular masterpiece if there can be such a thing in such a career.

Then take three years off.

Oh, I know. There were probably reasons that went beyond the obvious. There are always reasons that go beyond the obvious. There was reporting of the reasons–obvious and beyond–at the time. Muted, respectful. Just taking a break. Trying for a kid with the man she loved (a kid which never came–Leamer’s piece, written when the issue was still in doubt, strongly hinted that she saw it as a possible judgment on her abortion, though with what sourcing was impossible to tell).

Back soon, then. No worries. Nothing by any means really original or interesting or other than obvious.

In that respect, at least, she was normal, predictable. On the public relations side, she always was.

And, of course, she kept in touch.

Sort of. Guest appearances and the like.

But just in case you wanted to be especially stubborn–just in case you wanted, on either a conscious or subconscious level, to send some sort of perfect message about your commitment to something other than stardom, to being relevant “a hundred years from now”–you could do worse than release an album called Long Stretch of Lonesome and have the last song on it be heart-stopping even by your unearthly standards and be called “Where I’m Bound”–before you basically walked down off the top of the mountain.

If those were her first thoughts–and I have absolutely no reason to believe they were except for the perfect symmetry of it all–then she surely had second ones.

You gotta believe even geniuses are human. Probably never more human than when, having stepped aside for a rest, one finds herself watching a lot of talented somebodies who decidedly aren’t geniuses carry on (and on and on), right there on the other side of the door she blew open, reaping all the big-voiced benefits of pure commerce without ever quite getting it.

That is, not quite getting it except as commerce.

Hard to believe you wouldn’t notice, if you were her.

So, finally, when she came back with 2000’s Strong Heart, it certainly seemed that she had bent, that she had–at long last–done something we might just have to forgive her for after all! It was the kind of album any good country singer–or just any good singer period–could have made. Or at least it sounded that way, compared to where she had left off.

At the time, I felt like holding a wake and I probably wasn’t the only one.

Listening back these days it sounds better

Give or take Miranda Lambert–the good singer/genius writer/lights-out-suburban-raised-superstar who was by no means necessarily bound to show up in Loveless’ wake and therefore should never be taken for granted–I doubt any talented somebody has made better in the years since.

It was disappointing, then, only in the context of Loveless’ own career.

But the disappointment was real enough. Maybe because it sounded like the first time she had chased the radio instead of letting it chase her and it was hard not to conclude that relief was the appropriate response among us die-hards when it did not exactly set the woods on fire.

It sounded, in other words, like the run was over.

*   *   *   *

So, okay, there it was. She had given us far more than we ever could have expected or reasonably hoped for.

She had fully earned the right to bend–to do what virtually every long-lasting major country star has done to survive at some time or other (unless, like Hank Williams, they literally don’t survive long enough to come all the way up against the choice).

And then, quite understandably, she had done what she had every right to do.

She had bent.

*  *  *  *

If she had–and later developments frankly made Strong Heart sound more like a transition to something bolder than I could have possibly imagined at the time than a true capitulation–then it didn’t take her long to snap back.

Her next release was the first Mountain Soul album and it once again gave the press and a lot of fans (new and old) a handy narrative. Mountain girl who made good–who got out of those hills and past those dead-end jobs without joining the military or even “going pop”–goes back to roots. If there’s any story line country music fans (me included) are more of a sucker for than that one I haven’t come across it.

Better if it’s true, of course. And in this case it was.

To a point.

What struck me most about Mountain Soul when it was first released to rousing acclaim in 2001–actually winning some real accolades from the rock press which loves those good old back-to-the-roots stories as much as anyone, even when the roots stretch back to that part of the world they collectively trust the least, trust even less than all the other parts of the world they typically condescend to–is that it sounded like what it quite frankly still sounds like.

Which was/is a really good Patty Loveless album.

A clear step up from Strong Heart. Maybe ahead of a few of her other albums, certainly a half-step behind the very best. Sure there were new elements, mostly in the margins and mostly amounting to honing in on certain aspects of her music that had always been present. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone who had been listening close down through the years. There were always new elements on a Patty Loveless album–and she was always honing in on some subtle something or other.

And those elements–even “back to the roots” elements–always had to be “in the margins” simply because the original concept had been so broad-based–had left so much space to be filled back in the days when we could not yet know that the only person who was going to live all the way up to the implications of Patty Loveless’ early music was Patty Loveless.

So it was frustrating in a way to see her finally get some mainstream recognition for going “back” to roots she had not only never left (some did, in fact, note that), but had actually long since recognized more possibility in than even most of her admirers cared to acknowledge.

Yep. Frustrating.

More so when it was so obvious that she was only being what she had always been, which was her utterly unique self, hiding, as always, in plain sight.

And, of course, that mainstream recognition quickly went away and the old “neotraditionalist” (or whatever) label came back with a vengeance.

This time around there was at least a little bit of truth in advertising, if only because she had started to become her own tradition.

Now, to be fair, this happens on some level to nearly all truly great country singers if they last long enough. There’s no other form of American music that leaves the past behind as slowly and regretfully as country. So a form-shifter–somebody who announced up front that she was a combination of “Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn and Linda Ronstadt,” but did so in a suitably matter-of-fact manner so as not to shake anybody up in case they started thinking about what such a combination might truly mean, especially if it was really just shorthand for something even grander and scarier (give her half a chance and she would start name-checking Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, and as spiritual rather than stylistic inspirations)–was almost bound to end up with some kind of semi-legendary status if, like Loveless, they had the goods to pull the whole thing off.

[Incidentally, this works itself out in Nashville terms by, among other things, the number of invites you get to be on somebody else’s record, a practice that has kept Loveless so busy throughout her career it would be worth its own essay. By my calculation, which is almost certainly incomplete, this runs to about four additional albums’ worth of duets, tribute appearances, etc. Everything I’ve heard is first rate and much of it luminous. Of course it is.]

But in Loveless’ case it came to a bit more than usual, because her embrace of her own “tradition”–the string of fine records she kept releasing with ever more stringent adherence to old-time instrumentation and ever more subtly adventurous vocals–happened to coincide with a New Depression in the country at large.

By design or yet another “coincidence,” she started singing like the last Depression, the one the history books tell us about, never ended at the very moment when the kind of economic unease that had long become associated almost exclusively with urban ghettos, rural shotgun shacks and Loveless’ own native Appalachia (meaning associated with the specific elements of “those people” who have produced both the bedrock of America’s great music traditions and the framework of its Pentecostal sense of impending comeuppance) began to spread to the comfortable neighborhoods–consequences that were felt long before the bubble economy’s various implosions allowed them to be quite so plainly seen.

There were six albums in nine years, starting in the “boom” times and ending at the very moment when the forces forever grinding (and grinding and grinding) us commoners into fodder showed their fangs for just a fleeting moment before the necessary re-jiggering and papering over could provide them with a new set of disguises so we could all start holding hands and smiling along together again.

Six albums in nine turbulent years then.

A heavy pace for someone who no longer seemed more than marginally interested in trying to remain “mainstream.” Four were specifically labeled throwbacks–the two Mountain Soul albums sandwiched around a traditional Christmas album that was better than anybody else’s traditional Christmas album and a revelatory “oldies” tribute that was an instant gold standard for another sort of Nashville standby–all that, plus two more stabs at staying in touch which, at their best, beat everything on the radio to pieces and got hardly any play at all.

Nashville regressed, as Nashville periodically does.

She moved on–in ways almost nobody ever does.

Made sense. Who better, after all, to provide a soundtrack for the age when the skies started keeping a hint of gun-metal gray no matter how much the sun shone and the ghosts finally wandered down from the mountains and started haunting suburbia–a suburbia which has become so far-ranging and ubiquitous that even country singers are raised there these days!–in the form of foreclosure signs and empty strip malls and meth labs and jangled nerves.

That was Patty Loveless in the decade just past.

*  *  *  *

Along about here I should mention that this is how I heard it. My own specific, purely individual reaction.

By then, Loveless had given us a lot of the answers to those questions I posed above. Which meant all reactions were more than usually personal. By that time, even the evasions were personal. Yes, she had sold a lot of records. Enough to mean she’ll never be poor again. Enough, I suppose, to create factions of a sort within her own loyal fan base (arguments, perhaps, about her MCA period versus her Epic period, or her “commercial” period versus her “roots” period). But she had also gone deep down in the connection, to that place where the “reaction” gets not just personal but very, very twitchy.

And, of course, she had done so without espousing any kind of topical “politics.”

The really great artists–the ones who reach the last, deep place by finally bringing everything down to a level so close to the heart it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world thinks about what is going on between you and them–don’t generally do politics, and, if they do, they don’t usually do them for long.

The really great artists don’t generally “do” anything very specific.

Except be–a process they make very specific indeed.

And along about here, so that no one will get the wrong idea, I should also mention that hers is not a bleak vision.

Hardly. (In fact, of all the wondrous aspects of Loveless voice, perhaps the most wondrous is her ability to utterly excise country’s traditional reliance on self-pity from lyrics that seem to beg for such and replace it with an astringency that alternatively relieves tension and ratchets it up, not always in the order you might expect based on the last time you listened to that particular song. Anyone who needs proof might start by listening to her version of “Busted.” The attention it got when Mountain Soul II was released derived from her restoration of Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which had been long since been changed from the perspective of a coal miner to that of a cotton farmer because Johnny Cash wanted to record it and, as he put it, he didn’t know anything about mining coal. The most famous versions–by Cash, Ray Charles and John Conlee, all fantastic–had at least a trace of sardonic distance. Loveless has a sense of humor, but she doesn’t do “distance.” When she sings about being driven mad, she brings it close. Not so close you drown in it, just close enough for you to wonder how she keeps it together–and if it will last.)

So not a bleak vision. No sir.

Just a guarded one. A line-walking one.

Okay, so the line is between faith and doubt and she walks it more steadfastly and more often than even the gospel Elvis or the pre-gospel Al Green did (just to mention the only two who have ever walked it at all). And she may not get on for a particular song. But if and when she does, she never, ever falls off. She always–always–hangs on and walks through to some place nobody else can get to.

But no, it’s not bleak.

Wary, I’d call it. A reminder that rock or rap or soul might be mostly about standing up and being counted even at their bleakest, but country, like the blues, is–even at its sunniest–about keeping your head down and surviving, about digging in for the long haul. About remembering that, if mighty edifices are are going to be erected, somebody has to be the floor. And if the walls are going to fall, somebody has to rise up out of the dust that’s left behind and carry on.

Build new walls if you will.

And for wariness, for being guarded, for never failing to remember the need for the floor–or the fates of those who are destined to lie on it whether they learn to love where they’re from or not, to be forgotten until there’s a war to fight, or a row to hoe, or coal to be mined–for digging in, who better than Patty Loveless?

This is, after all, a woman who has said that her political views are as private as her sex life and has stuck by that in an age when suggesting your sex life is private is generally taken as a sign of arrogance, a decided unwillingness to play along and be a good sport. And, unlike nearly everybody else who says the same things, has stuck by it.

Like I said. Stubborn.

Not bleak. Just cautionary.

So, in my own personal, twitchy way, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have made exactly the same records in a time of plenty and good stewardship as she made in a time of waste and want and their attendant unease. She just would have made them about the quality of the air in the hard times coming instead of the hard times already here.

I also do not doubt that it would have been just as difficult to really tell which songs she had lived to the fullest and which hadn’t touched on her personal experience at all–those she had “merely” observed.

Or that she would, under any given broad set of circumstances, have mastered the trick of destroying the utterly meaningless distinction post-post-post-modernism believes is the only thing that means anything at all. That she would have mastered that trick which only the very greatest singers master because only the very greatest singers can consistently wipe out the boundary between experience (theirs…or yours?) and imagination (theirs…or yours?).

I have no doubt that she would have been just as good at making the high times tremble as she was at making the worst times bearable.

No, not bleak, then. Not bleak over the long haul no matter how close to the bone she might have made “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” cut as the years went by, or what that “It’s like a razor on me, knowing you want to be free” line from “Baby’s Gone Blues” sounds like when I listen back now and feel it reaching for my throat.

Not bleak, just fatalistic. Always moving back to the center, where most of us live our lives.

And therefore not truly fashionable.

*  *  *  *

Which might finally be why it’s been more than usually difficult for even the best contemporary music writers (more than a few of whom clearly love her) to capture the essence of her art within the limitations of a “publishing” tradition that is fighting for its collective life.

Because there is no one shining, easily narrated and assimilated moment that defines Patty Loveless. No signature tune or album or “event” that sums her up–or sums up even half of what I’ve said here, which is only a fraction of what there is to say–in any way that is even remotely satisfactory.

No narrative on which a hat can be hung in such a way that a broad audience of even a few thousand like-minded people might agree that “yes, this is the right hat, the hat that covers all that needs to be covered!” while also remaining at least somewhat true.

I don’t need to guess about this. I can just cite my own experience.

Because, much as I know better, I’ve dismissed half a dozen of her albums as “pretty good” over the years, only to find them creeping back into the humdrum of my daily life or my world view or my CD player because I’ve found that this supposedly “old-fashioned” hard country singer who rarely writes her own songs and draws on the same pool of Nashville talent (writers, players, backup singers–whether the one constant, that enormously gifted producer/husband, Emory Gordy, Jr., who has been on board for fourteen of her sixteen albums, is the best record man in Nashville because that’s just who he is or because he happens to be the one Patty Loveless put her trust in, is a question that runs along the chicken vs. egg paradigm…unanswerable) as everyone else, has been running out ahead of me yet again.

This was brought home most powerfully when a day long driving trip through Georgia and the Carolinas in the fall of 2009, with the just released Mountain Soul II for a constant hour-by-hour companion to the relentless and readily visible evidence of the deep-in-the-bone economic blight that had spread from the usual forgotten small towns and inner cities all the way to the interstates, made me realize that this was what the decade (or maybe several decades) prior had been leading up to. Suddenly, all the chances she had taken–or refrained from taking–with that matchless voice that still sounds like we dreamed it up, the utter refusal to give in to excess or stray from the heart of whatever she was singing to or about for even a single second, even when the trends brought on by the passing years and, oddly enough, the extension of her own pervasive (if rarely acknowledged) influence, made that more and more clearly the “safe” option, made perfect sense.

And a whole lot of what I had missed–in the world at large and in her music specifically, going all the way back to Strong Heart a decade before–was illuminated.

After which I started listening to her older albums in a different light and found that they, too, were of a piece.

That what I heard today might help me finally make sense of something she did twenty years back.

And vice versa.

*  *  *  *

And why, pray tell, should that matter?

Well you may ask.

Heck, I live in America. And, warts and all, I’ve never (absent youthful wanderlust), had much desire to live anywhere else, not even the day after an election.

But I know a few things.

I know we’re the people who always think we can run away from everything. Who are ever so sure that–never mind William “the past isn’t dead it isn’t even past” Faulkner–the past is really just helpless. Helpless because it will always be around but it will never catch up.

Not to us.

Not out here away from the mountain hollows or war-zone city streets. Not out here in nice safe white middle-class neighborhoods where we’ve long since proved we can breed a Nashville cat quick as a country club lawyer.

Out here, we always know that no matter how many times we sell our collective soul, we’ll always figure out some way to buy it back!

If Patty Loveless may well be–as the fine blog-site Country Universe put it–“the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success” then it’s our loss.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, after all, that this last great mountain singer (who also happens to be virtually the only modern country star who was raised with the poverty wolf once so common to southern rural childhoods at least within howling distance of her door) has been especially good at catching the tenor of these particular times even as she never strays very far from country’s time-honored subject matter.

Who else would we expect to remind us Americans–we the people who are always sure we can run away from the consequences of whatever sins we care to commit–that we really can’t? And how else would she remind us except the way such voices have always reminded us? Not by preaching sermons–not ever, not Cotton Mather/Jonathan Edwards sermons or Pat Robertson/Billy Graham sermons or even Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen sermons–but by singing broken love songs and love’s gonna last songs. Saturday night drinking and dancing songs that sometimes, but only sometimes, end with hangovers. Grandpa songs. Mama songs. Working class hero songs. Gonna leave songs, gonna stay songs, come to Jesus songs, go to the devil songs. Same old, same old.

Who else would want that job, let alone embrace it, if not the last great mountain singer?

Who else could step into that role and just be?

For all that I think the answers to those questions are obvious (nobody else, that’s who!), I don’t finally claim any special insight into Patty Loveless or her music. I think most of what I hear is also pretty obvious. And I think the reasons for even some of her most ardent and devoted fans to hold this particular idea of her music at arm’s length–to find only comfort, only updated tradition–are not merely understandable but eminently reasonable. You want/need to be healed, by all means be healed. I would have to be a moral idiot to ever begrudge anybody that. I sometimes want/need to be healed myself.

Besides that, I’m not even sure I’m “right!” There’s no way I can be. My position feels a little too extreme for that. Lots of people think she’s real good. Lot’s of people think she’s “great!”

I don’t think she has to bow down to anybody. Ever. And, yes, that feels a little extreme. I’m not sure too many people have made that point.

So sure, I’ve been hacking away, bit by bit, at this little “think-piece” for months on end. But, when it’s all said and done, maybe Patty Loveless really is/was just another good country singer and I’ve been crazy all these years to think she was/is ever so much more. Maybe she doesn’t really need to be parsed any longer or deeper than what’s generally done for an interview in the local paper or a nice complimentary write-up for her latest record in the better class of trade mags or another re-hash of her too-good-to-be-made-up biography.

I honestly don’t know. This sort of response–this twisty, personal reaction thing I have going on–does not run to the sort of proof offered up by mathematical formulas or rack sales.

The only thing that keeps convincing me–keeps making me doubt and then not doubt–is her records.

And for all her massive talent, all that rock and soul variance so subtly intertwined with the specifically country verities, all that freedom unleashed by all that ceaselessly unfailing (one might almost say ungodly) discipline, what I really hear in those records is not so much the considerable thrill of her technique or her matchless timbre, (so country and so not, so pure and so not, so “traditional”…and so not) but a quality of the soul.

No voice, however great–however “perfect”– could combine country’s (or America’s) aspirational side with its fatalistic side so adroitly and for so, so long, or could ever keep such constant faith with a past the present seems so determined not merely to forget but to crush–all on its own.

No voice could achieve that long-standing miracle without resort to constant habits of clear thinking and wrestling with hard choices. We know this because “miracle” voices happen along in Nashville and elsewhere every few years and sometimes more often than that.

And some of those voices last a very long time. A few manage to tease out the perspiration-inspiration equation it takes to become institutions even.

And deservedly so. God knows.

But very, very few remain miracles. Sooner or later, even the very greatest artists learn that perspiration really is the easy part. And then they set the commitment inspiration requires aside to take a well-deserved day or year or decade to just get along.

I have no idea what part of Patty Loveless won’t let her do that. What part of her never, ever lets her just go along.

Oh sure, she can shut up for a while.

Heck it’s been three and a half years (and, to be fair, a lot of familial heartbreak) since her last record, and there was no mountain to come down from–no stardom to reject–this time around.

So absolutely she knows how to shut up.

Coast?

No.

That she can’t seem to do and I have no earth-shaking insights at all as to the “why.”

*   *   *   *

I do have a few impulses (“thought” would be far too elevated a word).

We do actually have some things in common that might inspire some sort of greater than usual fellow feeling. We’re both southerners with deep Appalachian roots (East Tennessee back to the 1780s for me, Eastern Kentucky back however far for her). We’re about the same age. Evidently, we both know something about growing up in a household where a beloved parent struggles mightily to keep from coughing up a lung, and does so full courtesy of the man (coal dust from the mine for her father, cotton dust from the mill for my mother). We both moved and found out what it was like to be a fish out of water at the age when you really, really want to be swimming along with everybody else–me being gently mocked for being too city in the country, she being not-so-gently mocked for being too country in the city.

Maybe all those things, plus a few more I won’t bore you with, add up to something.

But I actually doubt it.

Like I said, I think what I hear in Patty Loveless is pretty obvious to anyone who gets it at all, and mostly inaccessible–except as considerable pleasure and passing transcendence–to everyone else.

For better or worse, it’s probably available mostly to kindred spirits, not common experience. After all, just how “kindred” common experience really makes us is anyone’s guess.

But we know what the heart does.

We know that even in this reality-driven, fact-obsessed, machine-tooled world we’ve made–that is, in fact, carrying these very words to once-unthinkable regions as matter-of-factly as wood feeds fire or water puts it out–it’s still the heart that really understands.

*  *  *  *

Counting her various “guest” appearances and one-offs, Patty Loveless has recorded about two hundred sides. On maybe a hundred and fifty of them, she’s done what a lot of the greatest singers who ever lived did only a handful of times or never at all–worn each one not like a suit of clothes (hard, but every really good singer can do that), but like a second skin. And if the last fifty–the bottom fifty–were the best she ever did, she would still be well worth talking about, still be worthy of whatever “Hall of Fame” she was eligible for.

She’d still be real, real good.

She just wouldn’t be Patty Loveless.

She wouldn’t be the one who decided to find out what the cost/reward analysis was on never giving in. And then went ahead and did it.

So maybe all that’s really required to “get” her is the willingness–or perhaps it’s the need–to have at least one singer in your head who truly believes that’s the only way to be.

*  *  *  *

As I write this, Loveless has not released an album in three and a half years, the longest break in her career. I have no idea if she will release ten more albums or none. Or, if another one does come, whether it is six months away or six years. No way to know if and when the next one does come how I will hear it out of the box. It might blow the top of my head straight off like Mountain Soul II or Long Stretch of Lonesome or 1992’s Only What I Feel. It might take some real getting used to like Strong Heart. It might be real nice to listen to for a few years before it starts to seep into my bones like 1988’s My Heart Had Windows or 2002’s Blue Grass and White Snow. It might announce itself as an instant classic which nonethless won’t reveal its true secrets for years, like the albums that took her to the top of country music between 1993 and 1996.

Who knows?

And, since I can’t say where she’s going, I’ll let the story end (for now!) with where she’s been. I started with the first cut from her first album so I’ll conclude with the last cut from her most recent. Listening to them together might say more about the journey so far–the journey from bottomless promise to faith fully rewarded, the journey each listener probably only gets to take with one or two singers in a lifetime–than another ten thousand words ever could.

Patty Loveless “Diamond In My Crown” (Video)

[Additional Note: Although this piece took a long time to write, I’m using it to inagurate a new category, “Vocalist of the Month.” The approach will be varied–more fun, less sweating blood, I promise!–but it seems like a good approach to writing in depth about more singers that I care about, which is, after all, still the main focus of this blog.]