CONSEQUENCES (Memory Lane: 2008 and 1989)

The radio soundtrack of the weeks after my dad died in 2008 turned up something rare for those days: a song I liked.

The song was being played on the country stations, which I was just on the verge of quitting. The death of the old “I ain’t the one lost am I?” spirit that lay at the back of “don’t tread on me” had been coming for a while. By 2008, country, as it had existed since it came down from the mountains to Knoxville and Bristol in the late twenties,  was lying down, wheezing itself to a noisy death, to be reborn as a pale imitation of modern pop, which is itself a pale imitation of Tin Pan Alley that operates as though rock and roll and soul (and, for that matter, country) never existed..

I’m speaking vocally, of course, but it seems to have affected the songwriting and production styles as well. Vocals always do. In the absence of distinctive voices, which are just conduits for distinctive spirits, everything else dies too. That’s why the overlords are always pathologically invested in reigning voices in, if and when they can’t shut them down. (Sending Elvis off to the army was the most notorious example of this, but hardly the only one.)

So it was odd that the song I liked, at that personally and existentially depressing moment–my dad dead, the economy in free-fall, the war in Iraq being sold as a “victory”–was by Montgomery Gentry.

Montgomery Gentry were two guys who had been enormously successful representing, maybe defining, the “dude-bro” division of Nashville’s modernity. They were a duo: good singers pumping up average song-mill material with the usual fake passion that such material deserved. They got it just right exactly once, with that year’s “Roll With Me.”

Did it help (or even matter) that their names were writ large on a huge billboard just south of Dothan, Alabama, that I used to pass once a week during the several months when I was riding around to various hospitals and doctor’s offices, trying to straighten out the tangle of bureaucratic mendacity at the back of my dad’s stack of medical bills?

Maybe.

Big sign or not, string of gold records or not, I barely knew who Montgomery Gentry were at the time and I barely know who they are now. Without their one moment, I’d have no reason to recall them at all. One way you know a form is dying is when it can produce big stars who leave no trace and country, like every other form, had plenty of those from about the mid-nineties onward (after having few, if any, such in the decades prior–you might not care for Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold, might not think them “country” enough, but you couldn’t dismiss them).

Which all just means there is no way of fully explaining “Roll With Me.”

But a partial explanation lay in its second verse, which summed up the contemporary fakery so skillfully it laid it wide open. There were a few pedestrian lines about a mother losing her son, the singer attending the funeral, him realizing “we all just have our time.” Perfectly cliched.

Except, in the fall of 2008, with a “change” election looming (which would, of course, change nothing), it was impossible to hear the careful avoidance of specificity–and the uncharacteristically subdued passion in the vocal–as anything but a pure damnation of sending soldiers to die for fake victories, decade after decade, that dovetailed with the singer’s world-weary acceptance of losing his ability to care about anything but his own specific future with the woman he wants to roll with.

We all just have our time, indeed.

One of the things that happened in my father’s time was we took a driving trip from Florida to upstate New York (a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame). On the way we made several stops coming and going. My brother’s place in North Carolina, Washington, D.C. ,Gettysburg, Times Square (a long story for another time–my dad could produce ’em), Chattanooga.

Nice memories. Dad had just retired from mission work (my mother had passed two years earlier), so it was a period of what the shrinks call “closure.” I don’t know if my dad found it for himself. I don’t even know if he was looking. But he may have delivered it to someone else.

I had seen the Viet Nam Memorial, in D.C., in the summer of ’87, but dad hadn’t and he wanted to. That was the main reason we stopped.  We went down the wall, the way people do. We stood around and contemplated the tragedy of it all, the way people do. We couldn’t think of much to say, the way people can’t.

At some point, we were standing at the back of the crowds, the small groups coming and going before the wall itself. After a time, I wandered off a bit, lost in my own thoughts, staring at nothing.

Dad stayed where he was, his hands characteristically folded in front of him, a pleasant, habitually unreadable half-smile on his face. When I started back towards him, I saw a man who looked to be in his early-thirties walking alone, straight through the crowd towards my father. When he reached him he simply collapsed into dad’s arms. I walked up just in time to hear dad say “Your brother?” The man couldn’t speak. After a while, he nodded.

This is where we like to say “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I’ve known hundreds of “better” Christians than my dad. Not one of them would a roughneck good old boy from Georgia have walked to, straight through a crowd, seeking comfort from a stranger no less total than anyone else by that wall. (“Atlanta” he said when my father asked where he was from. “Tallahassee,” I said, as my father, who was really from Tennessee, nodded. All of it, down to the nod, was code for Southern born, which is code for “born to be the shock troops.” In this case, as we didn’t have to say, “like your brother,” who I also didn’t have to say “could have been mine.” It’s the same code, whether you were a conscientious objector, like dad in WWII, or a skeptic like me, or lost a brother in Nam like some and it doesn’t even matter if we’re not the only ones. We all know how it’s “supposed” to work. And even if we’re not the only ones who know, we’re the first Americans who also know what it’s like to lose and, worse, what it’s like to lose in the name of history’s near-sorriest cause. Never kid yourself it doesn’t make a difference.)

There was nothing really to say after that. We didn’t have any long conversation. A few words of condolence. A good-bye. A southern-style see-you-down-the-road by which we mean in heaven because we know it doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever happening here. My dad didn’t say he was a minister. He didn’t have to. Some things those who were born to be the shock troops just know.

We waited until he was long gone. Then dad said it was time for us to go, too.

That was 1989. Closure. Maybe.

By 2008, we all knew there weren’t going to be any more walls to commemorate the dead. A lot of us knew that the present war would be never-ending. Some of us even knew it was planned that way, because, well, how else?

And these days, I can pull up the video for “Roll With Me” on YouTube (missed it entirely the first time around, country video never was my thing), and see that Montgomery Gentry didn’t leave the obvious interpretation entirely to chance. What was merely implied in the song–that the mother was gold star, the son a fatality of a war that was, is, and always will be, fought for no purpose except to punish whoever is willing to sacrifice)–is made explicit in the video.

Specific or not, though, every bit of that was in my air–and ninety percent of it was in everybody’s–when “Roll With Me” came on the radio a few weeks after my dad died, nearly twenty years after he comforted a boy who lost his brother in the last useless war. And, of course, nothing has changed since. Except for the rate of decline–now stalling, now accelerating–nothing will.The only question left is whether we’ll leave enough to provide a guide-map for the mullers and the seekers the next time round.

Now that I think about it (and why today, I have no idea), hearing “Roll With Me” may have been the first time a certain phrase entered my once cautiously optimistic mind. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think they might have formed the first time I heard that blues lick and didn’t even care what was coming. My pre-conscious mind at work, saying “Goodbye us.”

Hope for better next time around.

BACK THERE SOMEWHERE, NOT SO VERY LONG AGO…(Wayne Carson, R.I.P.)

WAYNECARSON1

…There used to be a certain type of professional songwriter who wasn’t easy, or even possible, to categorize. They only existed for a relatively brief time, between say the fifties and, at the outside, the eighties. Before that, songs and songwriters fit into fairly neat slots, like pretty much everything else in the music industry. Since then, songs have principally become vehicles of “personal expression,” usually unearned angst, and songwriters have largely become corporate entities with interests that hie closer to spread sheet balances than memorable melodies. None of which is new, of course, but the concepts have metastasized to the point where the kind of songwriters who pumped a good deal of popular music’s life blood in the only era when music was at the center of American culture have been made virtually obsolete.

Nobody exemplified that noble concept better than Wayne Carson, who passed away from congestive heart failure this week at 72. He doesn’t need me to say much. A lot of folks already said it for me. In a lot of different ways:

Tip of the iceberg really, but you get the idea.

WHAT’S MISSING (Segue of the Day: 3/20/15)

My internet speed issues have finally become sufficiently annoying/debilitating that I’m actually having to go into the office this week. (Go ahead, tell me civilization is still standing. I’ll believe you. I promise.)

One result is more radio than usual and last night on the way home I caught what I take to be Miranda Lambert’s latest, which on the radio, was, like a lot of her stuff, darn catchy and kinda’ edgy and definitely unique. I mean, I could tell it was her, which, these days is enough to make a singer practically a genius all by itself.

Even as I was smiling at rhymes like Tony Lloma and Oklahoma, though, I knew (like I always know when I’m listening to even the best modern country music) that something was missing.

What and why? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself when I’m listening to modern radio…and not just about country.

But country’s got a unique tradition. Unlike rock and roll or jazz it’s never been broadly amorphous. Unlike blues or gospel it’s always been a truly popular (as opposed to populist) music, it’s definitive practitioners able to reach far larger audiences than Muddy Waters or Marion Williams or the Blackwood Brothers. And, unlike Tin Pan Alley or hip-hop,  it’s never been truly hidebound (much as the suits would have preferred it, one time and another).

All that being said, some time in the last ten years or so, a switch has been flipped at country radio. Yes, the generations changed. The great women of the eighties and nineties turned forty. The great men turned fifty…then sixty. Country’s sell-by date for charting hits comes a little later, but it comes.

And, in the past, stretching back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, somebody always stepped in. Styles changed, expanded. New visions were incorporated.

The core remained. A music that could accommodate Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, remained nonetheless grounded in some certain something.

To be honest, until last night, I always knew it when I heard it, but I never even thought about whether it might have a name. All that really happened at first was that Miranda’s song put me in a country mood (or, at least, more of a country mood, since my re-acquisition of Rhino’s old Buck Owens’ box–lost in the great CD sell-off of 2002–had me leaning that direction anyway). So I went to Moe Bandy and Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis and I had pulled Charlie Rich and Don Gibson, when Mel’s “Your Body Is An Outlaw” got me to wondering, yet again, whether his daughter Pam was singing the backup part because it came out in 1980 or ’81 and she didn’t get famous herself for another decade but, once she did, I started thinking it sure sounded like her, and yeah, it’s kind of weird to be singing a duet with your daughter on a song like that, but then again Jeannie and Royce Kendall were making a career out of it around the same time so it certainly wasn’t unheard of.

So I went to the good old internet, Wikipedia and the like, and came up dry.

Then I went to YouTube, good old YouTube, and some authoritative sounding gentleman was in the comment section of at least two different clips claiming that, yes, Pam had sung back up on this…

And, having that for unofficial confirmation, what I could then safely say was that it sounded even more like her than ever…and I was sure in the mood for some Pam Tillis.

So I went to pull her epochal Put Yourself In My Place, one of the greatest albums ever made and the one that made her a star (and which I wrote about here). While I was at it, I saw Rhinestoned, a CD Tillis released on her own label back in 2007 and which I bought a discarded dee-jay copy of at the late, lamented Vinyl Fever before it would have been played on the radio.

You know, if it had been played on the radio.

Which is wasn’t. Because Pam was fifty by then. If you’re fifty and you’re a woman and you’re not Dolly Parton, you don’t get played on the radio.

You want to make a CD, you better go ahead and start your own label.

The thing is, I’ve had Rhinestoned for seven-eight years now and I had listened to it once and thought it was okay, nothing special, like what you might expect from a favorite who had veered a little pop when she was trying to hang on in the mid-to-late nineties and now was down to releasing stuff on her own label.

Still, I thought seven-eight years was long enough. I should probably give it another try.

And, lo and behold, there was another great Pam Tillis album that had been sitting on my self all those years, waiting for me to get my head right so I could finally hear it. (Did I mention that 2007-8 were rugged years? Dad died, eyes deteriorating with a good chance the deterioration wouldn’t stop, savings gone, writer’s block like I never had before or since. Like that.)

And while I was listening to this particular record (and the particular cut linked below) I realized what has gone missing from the core of country music that gets played on the radio…and most of that which doesn’t.

Because, I realized that, in order to be a really great country singer, you have to contain within yourself the essence of the word Ralph Stanley used to describe Patty Loveless when she was at the height of her fame and which has gone entirely missing from modern country radio. The quality that even Miranda Lambert (Loveless’ own favorite modern) doesn’t quite possess.

Lonesome.

Okay, now I’m off to work.

Don Gibson and Charlie Rich in tow.