THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring, 2017 Countdown)

10) Various Artists What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977 (2006)

Deep, yes. But also wider than any but the experienced might suspect before diving in and stroking for the far shore. “Soul Finger” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” are among the few crossover hits. Big names like Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, or those like Charles Wright, Lulu, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas, Dr. John, who might at least be familiar to fans of the period, are not represented by their best known hits. Most of the rest is really obscure (or was, until this was released as one of Rhino’s last great boxes in 2006).

At four discs, five hours and 91 cuts, this never even comes close to quitting. What might catch the uninitiated by surprise, in a hardcore funk collection, is the range of tempos.Plenty of fast stuff, sure. But who would deny this, where Patti Labelle sings “if I ever lose my BIG mouth, I won’t have to talk anymore” and you can feel the distance between the white man (then called Cat Stevens) who wrote the rest of it and the black woman who added the key word?

I also like it when you can smell the barbecue.

9) Fairport Convention Liege and Lief  (1969)

The third remarkable album released by Fairport in the Year of our Lord, 1969. This one, following the death of their drummer, Martin Lamble, (a death that had a similar crushing effect to James Honeyman-Scott’s on the Pretenders a generation hence), was almost all Sandy Denny. Numbed by loss, the others decided to follow where she led. That turned out to be a a labyrinth of English folk music from which it could be argued only guitarist Richard Thompson ever fully emerged. This isn’t the first time I listened, but I never really heard it before. Now I’m mini-obsessed. A couple of more spins and I might be up to a post on Denny in ’69, one of the most remarkable years any vocalist ever had. For now, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. And I’m taking precautions, because I’ve realized that if you wander too deeply in these woods, you mightn’t find your way out.

8) Latimore Straighten it Out: The Best of Latimore (1995)

In addition to the two cuts I highlighted earlier in the week (novelties, but deep too), mostly a straightforward set of fine-tuned 70s R&B. A little funk, a little soul, a little big-voiced balladeering, a lot of traditional Love Man, all rendered with a mix of silk and grit that makes for good smiling and nodding music. No small thing these days.

My other standouts are an unlikely cover of “Stormy Monday,” and a deep take on George McCrae’s “I Get Lifted.” But it all goes down smooth.

7) Patty Loveless Up Against My Heart (1991)

Measure for measure. My favorite album by my favorite modern singer, possessed of a brand of fatalism Sandy Denny might have recognized. What might be forgotten now is that this record almost killed her career when it failed to go gold or platinum like her previous three. Nashville is famously unforgiving of slackers. Somebody is always ready to take your place, especially when you’re either an unrepentant honky tonker or a female, forget both. She pulled a fast one by switching labels and running up a string of awards which was modest next to Reba’s (before) or Miranda’s (after), but astonishing given how uncompromised her voice was. You can hear all of that here. “God Will” is an all time killer and “I Came Straight to You” the best smile in her catalog. But this time around, another one stuck deeper than usual.

6) Tanya Tucker My Turn (2009)

Her 24th album, the first in six years at the time and still her latest to date. All of which  might help explain why, for the first time ever, she sounded relaxed. Relieved of the pressures of stardom for the first time since she was thirteen, she was able to bring something new to a bunch of classic country covers that included signature songs from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell. All the songs her daddy wanted her to sing and nobody, but nobody, ever said she lacked guts.

5) Mel Tillis HItsides 1970-1980 (2006)

A beautifully constructed overview of the man at his peak. He broke into Nashville in the sixties with one of those good singer/great writer reps that were common at the time. Unlike almost everyone else who wore the tag he turned out to be a great singer too. Though he wrote only about a third of them, every one of these twenty-five cuts from his golden decade feels lived in.

The boundaries (neither of which he wrote)?

On one end, “Stomp Them Grapes,” which would have done Roger Miller proud. On the other, “Your Body is an Outlaw,” as deep and scary as anything by George Jones, which he sang with his eldest daughter a year after I served fish sticks and french fries to two of her younger sisters at the girls’ camp sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Never let it be said that the South is an uncomplicated place.

(Oh, and he did write: “Detroit City,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Mental Revenge.” Like that.)

4) Candi Staton Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (2011)

The “evidence,” presumably, for the case of someone who should have been a much bigger star. There’s plenty of that here. It’s hard to understand why anyone who looked and sounded as great as Candi Staton–and had so much talent surrounding her–didn’t really cross over until she went disco (helping create the paradox of the soul singer who used disco to reach a wider audience even as more famous soul singers were being wiped out left and right).

If I had to put my finger on it, I’d blame the material, which is good, but lacks that one killer that might have put her in heavy rotation at the pop stations and brought the rest into focus. The biggest exception is “Stand By Your Man” which did cross over (nearly as big as “Young Hearts Run Free”), but, unfortunately, left no trace, having already been defined for purposes of useful narrative by Nashville’s Tammy Wynette. Too bad, because Candi had a great deal more to add to the concept than Hilary Clinton, who stood by her man long enough for him to lock up half of Candi Staton’s neighborhood.

3) Paul Revere & the Raiders The Complete Columbia Singles (2010)

This wanders about…and intrigues. Over nearly a decade and a half, they developed a theme: Stomp. Then do something else (Brill Building pop maybe? Hot rod music?)

Then Stomp. Then do something else. (Psychedelia maybe? Country rock?)

Then….Stomp.

Then….something (anything!).

Then…

Stomp.

The essence of the Stomp is on The Essential Ride, a single-disc comp that focuses on the mid-sixties and includes the hits everybody loves, plus “Crisco Party.”  In the days when “Louie, Louie” was being investigated by a congressional committee, that one was too obscene even for a garage band B-side (hence is missing here). And if you just want the Stomp, you could go here.

You’d be missing a lot, though. Mark Lindsay was one of the great hardcore rock and roll singers. Everybody knows that (though just how much he sounds like Mitch Ryder before Mitch Ryder on some of the earliest sides here might still startle you). But he was one of the great pop-rock singers, too. And, whatever one thinks of “Indian Reservation” (I love it without reservation, but I know there are serious dissenters), you can also hear how much they had earned the right to a #1 Protest Record because, as protest records go, it’s not a patch on 1966’s “The Great Airplane Strike” (which sounds like it should be the title of a solemn documentary on union organizing and is a good joke) or 1967’s “Do Unto Others” (which sounds like it should be the title of a Lenny Bruce routine and is serious….and lovely).

2) Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. Except that white critics cut Kendrick all the slack they never gave War, nothing’s changed. That might be why an outsider like me can’t tell whether it’s me or Lamar who feels tired.

One line stuck out, though: Hearing “I’ve never been violent…until I’m with the homies,” made me hear my old daddy quoting his Uncle Sam, speaking to him in the Tennessee hills in the twenties, saying “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy a’tall.”

I wish I could remember if Uncle Sam was the one who told my old daddy stories about chasing cows into the woods to hide them from the Yankees the night they drove old Dixie down.

Funny what you remember and what you don’t.

1) The Roots, Undun (2011)

The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. It even starts with a quote from the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” which, a generation back, was The World is a Ghetto one generation on.

Which leads to the question: Are all rap albums now rewrites of “The World is a Ghetto?” And if nothing’s changed, is it because we can’t change or we won’t?

Til next time.

PASSING THE TORCH (Segue of the Day: 3/14/17)

I’ve been waiting for these particular Patty Loveless/Miranda Lambert duets to pop up on YouTube with audio to do the performances justice. They’re here at last. And while Patty Loveless can’t truly pass a torch any more than George Jones or Al Green could, Miranda Lambert is the performer who has benefited most–both artistically and commercially–from the ground she broke open, stone by stone, a generation earlier without Rolling Stone or the Village Voice paying the least mind. The way Nashville politics work, Miranda will probably make the Hall of Fame before Patty does. (Go ahead, Nashville, surprise me…I’ll eat crow from now til the Judgement if you do. Cross my heart and hope to die.) But there will never be any doubt about who walks in whose shadow….and they really should do a duet album.

THE INVISIBLE HAND (Curly Putman, R.I.P.)

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Amongst other things, I’ll remember 2016 as the year I grew weary of death. Maybe it’s just that time of life for me. Maybe for the country or something. Anyway…

All Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr. did with his life was write more signature songs for more iconic country singers than practically anyone else. I’m sure if I went around counting up, Willie Nelson or Harlan Howard or maybe Putman’s some time partner, Bobby Braddock, would be in the running. In any case the list is short and exalted.

Suffice it to say few non-performers ever had such monumental impact.

Just in case you ever think writing for a song mill isn’t “art” but merely craft or some such, you can ponder this list of the songs he wrote that helped define…

Porter Wagoner…

Tammy Wynette…

Charlie Rich…

Tanya Tucker…

George Jones…

Moe Bandy (and Janie Fricke)…

If you don’t want to listen to the clips, you can get the point by simply perusing the titles…all credited to a man who, when he died this week, left behind his wife of sixty years.

Great artist that he was, I wouldn’t be surprised that he counted that the finer achievement. But I’m glad he took the time to put in a word for the rest of us.

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DRILLING DOWN…BLUES AND ELVIS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #58)

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Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but  Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.

That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.

I didn’t find it so.

I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.

Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.

And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of  “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.

There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!

So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…

..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.

And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….

,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.

That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.

JUST COUNTRY ENOUGH (Billy Sherrill, R.I.P.)

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(Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Billy Sherrill)

There used to be what was thought of as a more or less eternal war in Nashville between “too real” and “too pop.” The war still sort of goes on but, unfortunately, it’s a little hollow now because, like everything else in this generation’s popular music the now eternal outcome has been decided elsewhere by people who don’t really feel a need to keep artists or audiences informed. You can turn on the radio and punch buttons straight across the dial if you’re interested in the results.

When the war was hottest and heaviest, the single figure most likely to produce hits, controversy or a way ahead was writer/producer Billy Sherrill. He had a broad-based, deeply nuanced formula. Nobody could have stayed at the top of the heap as long as he did–or straddled both sides of such a thorny fence as spectacularly well–if it had been simple.

But it’s probably fair to say it at least had simple elements. At it’s very best those elements tended to be the same: the lushest arrangements permissible (sometimes built up and then stripped back down, even in the same song…like I said, it wasn’t really simple even when it sounded the simplest) backing the very hardest country voices.

You know. Tammy Wynette, George Jones, David Allan Coe, Johnny Paycheck, Tanya Tucker.

Like that.

Even a cursory listing of his most famous productions (not a few of which he also wrote), reads like at least half of the short list people generally start with when they start writing or talking about “the perfect country record.”

To Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which gets the most run, you could add Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” and maybe fifty others that would spring more readily to mind if those didn’t happen to already exist.

They all exist in the iconic form they now have not just because of Sherrill’s extraordinary skills as one of the dozen or so greatest record men of the twentieth century, but because he was a genuine visionary in a town and an industry that do not exactly encourage visions. If he was slagged for musical and (sometimes) political conservatism in what’s supposed to be the industry’s most conservative town, well, he didn’t let it bother him too much. And if being “conservative” was what it took to make the records he made–as opposed to what the New Conservatism, which prides itself on being anything but, now produces–then I’ll take a dose of it right now and go down smiling.

The obits are ubiquitous on line and I’m sure his most famous records (which would be too numerous to list in full anyway) will get plenty of play. So I’ll stick to a few of my own favorites, which maybe strike even deeper because they won’t be in everyone’s ear today and because, some time or other, they came for me in my own little personal shadow and made things a little brighter.

Owe you brother. More than I can say.

Maybe even as much as the other misfits you somehow made fit.

 

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

 

LET’S ALL PAUSE TO REMEMBER THAT FAINT PRAISE IS THE WORST FORM OF DAMNATION

Or, as I’ve said before…It isn’t only Elvis they say stupid stuff about:

Granted, I’m probably a little over-sensitive to the slights routinely embedded in virtually any assessment of popular singers (great or otherwise) perpetrated by industrial critics, but Noah Berlatsky may have just set a new standard for horse-assery.

In a nominal tribute to the recently deceased George Jones, he manages the following “compliments”:

“tottering glop masterpieces” (applied to “He Stopped Loving Her Today”)

“sounded like he’d just been hit in the head with a bucket every time he opened his mouth” (applied to Jones’ vocal style)

“unlistenable, cover your eyes” (applied to “The Wedding Ceremony”–we’ll leave aside why you should cover your eyes if something is “unlistenable,”–the crit-illuminati’s cleaver-to-raw-meat relationship with even the simplest language is well-established around here)

“sublimely klutzy vaudeville” (applied to “Did You Ever?”–between this and the previous, guess which qualifies as praise?)

“merging of minds into single, bickering, doofy oneness” (followup on “Did You Ever?” which is supposed to double as an overall take on Jones’ duet career with Tammy Wynette, whose voice Berlatsky actually describes as “smooth” at one point–oh, Tammy, if only you could have lived to read that!)

or, finally

“Listening to George and Tammy, it’s not hard to figure out why we’ve moved on. Theirs was a decidedly awkward, hokey take on gender…” (awkward because, as Berlatsky goes on to explain, “maybe there’s been progress”)

Progress toward what I wonder?

Berlatsky doesn’t say. Oh, he says something alright. Men and women less different now (huh?) Conversation we’ve learned how to avoid (if only!) “Gracious, clumsy inevitability” and not many left who can match either the clumsiness or the grace (as if clumsy grace had once been common-place or even, given the limits of mere human contradiction, possible.)

He says something. Always they say something these illuminati types.

Just not anything coherent.

Come to think of it, when it comes to laying on some “tottering glop” perhaps he knows of what he speaks.

What George Jones and Tammy Wynette did–individually and together–was transcend grinding poverty and closets full of personal demons of the sort that swallow thousands of people every day to mix pain, beauty and humor in ways that won’t have a sell-by date until the day we blow ourselves up (with or without God’s help) or the machines take over and the demons presumably all go away.

Suggesting that their principal value lies in vapid camp on any day, let alone on the occasion of Jones’ death, is beneath comtempt.

But, of course, if we know one thing, it’s that those who choose to act beneath contempt tend to have one abiding quality.

They never, ever rest.

 

THEY’LL NEVER EXPLAIN THIS ONE DOWN AT THE FACTORY…(George Jones, R.I.P)

There’s was once an old saw in country music (now long forgotten or, more likely, just conveniently abandoned–these days it’s just a well-paying job) that in order to sing like Hank Williams you had to live like Hank Williams.

Inherent in the bargain was one very serious limitation, which was the odds-on, all-but-guaranteed assumption that if you lived like Hank Williams you would die like Hank Williams. Which was to say, young, broke and wasted.

George Jones–the greatest heir of Williams and Lefty Frizzell (Lefty made it all the way to 47, albeit with his life and career long in tatters…Hank died at 29)–who passed away today at the age of 81, didn’t just beat those odds, he stomped on them.

That anyone could consume as much alcohol, pills and various other ingredients made for the specific purpose of burning the human temple down and still embody such an unmatchable–almost unholy–combination of inspiration, commitment, consistency and durability is one of those mysteries that science will never figure out.

But as perfect as all that is, he was better than that.

Much better.

Among country vocalists, his artistic legacy was matched in his own time only by Merle Haggard. In the times since only Patty Loveless has come anywhere close.

So the finest compliment I can pay him is to say that as perfect as the mystery of his actual existence was and is, it pales in comparison to his legacy as a vocalist.

I can’t add much else to what others are saying, so I’ll just send you back to my own favorite pebble from Jones’ mighty mountain. Listening isn’t just the best medicine. It’s the best explanation:

George Jones “Where Grass Won’t Grow” (Video)