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.

AL GREEN’S STUNNING (MOSTLY UNNOTICED) ARRIVAL (Segue of the Day: 10/20/16)

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Since I had nearly all of Al Green’s Hi albums on vinyl it was only a few years ago (about the time I started sleeping in my den, where the modern stereo equipment is) that I decided to collect them on CD. The best, cheapest way to gather them up was in three four-album, two disc collections, issued by the oldies’ label Edsel, that put two albums per disc, in chronological order.

And what’s happened now is what often happens when things that used to be separated, mentally and physically, are run together and recontextualized.

It’s now possible, perhaps even spiritually mandatory, for me to hear Green’s first two LPs, Green is Blues and Al Green Gets Next to You, as a single expression of the broadest ranging, most penetrating vision of American vocal music anyone had put together since Green’s hero, Elvis, arrived at RCA in the mid-fifties. Hearing the albums separately all those years (and not really listening to the first one that much because it’s mostly covers and there is only so much world and time), I just thought they contained a lot of great music…and that Gets Next to You was the greatest southern soul/funk album anyone had ever made.

I haven’t changed my mind about the latter, but the total vision didn’t come clear until last night when I was listening on headphones to the first two-fer for maybe the tenth or twelfth time and I finally registered that Al Green, then twenty-three years old, had just gone Late Beatles, Gershwin (the last two cuts on Green is Blues), Early Beatles (a bonus track from the same sessions), Temptations (the first, monstrous cut on Gets Next to You). More than that, he had fully re-imagined every one of them, and turned every one of them into something larger and grander.

Later on, he would do much more–throw in Hank Williams, the Bee Gees, Lulu, a bit of Bo Diddley here, a bit of James Brown there and a world or two besides. Everything really. The size of the world.

Elvis’s truest inheritor then. open to everything and up for anything. It might not be purely coincidental that he walked away–back to the church his father had kicked him out of the house for turning his back on by blasting his Elvis and Jackie Wilson records–two heartbeats after Jackie was in a coma and one heartbeat after Elvis was in his grave.

And it’s all right there in the almost beginning:

I’m sure the world would have taken greater notice, made him something more than a southern soul star who crossed over and got raves at Rolling Stone and the Voice (rare enough, but nowhere near his true measure), if he hadn’t been a black man destined to make his records for a small southern label that depended on him for its survival.

It’s no use me blaming the Yankee heathens this time, though. I should have known better years ago.

Mea culpa.

DYLAN BECOMES DYLAN (Segue of the Day: 8/15/16)

Or maybe just…becomes.

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I’ve never listened all that close to Bob Dylan’s first two albums until here recently. What changed is that I acquired The Original Mono Recordings box set a couple of years back and I’ve since been able to listen to the legend “busy being born” in clear crystal sound instead of my old battered used vinyl copies.

Even so, I never really bore down on the experience until this week, when I decided to try and put my finger on why I like the first album, simply titled Bob Dylan,  which sold 5,000 copies when it was released, so much better than the second, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.That’s the one that set Greenwich Village on fire on the way to changing the world and all.

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It’s certainly not the covers. The cover is the best thing about the second album. It even sort of promises that what’s inside will be the main thing it’s not, which is “freewheein’.”

Even decades of general familiarity (you could end up knowing a lot about Dylan’s second album–like the lyrics to a lot of the songs–just by being alive for the last fifty years) left me unprepared for how safe the newly minted “Bob Dylan” was prepared to play it after that first album flopped.

And, by safe, I mean, of course, vocally. Which, as most of you know, is what matters around here.

Getting to know that first LP in the last year or so has been a revelation, so much so that I wonder how I could have possibly missed it before, irrespective of the quality of my old, used vinyl. It wouldn’t be fair to say Dylan made it sound like he was breathing a revolution (the quality that made so many intellectual gatekeepers underestimate the art that went into the early efforts of Fats and Elvis and Little Richard). But he was still the freest voice to enter popular music since the mid-fifties. And he was mostly singing other people’s songs. As so often happens–as it had happened with Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, among others–you start out thinking it’s the songs, but it’s really the voice.

Nearly as startling as Dylan’s first voice–and the way he used that voice–was his harmonica playing. Not just the fire and dexterity he put into it, but the way he wove it into his singing, as though it were simply an extension of his singing, constantly challenging and enlarging itself.

I know all this is hardly news to long-time Dylanistas who have followed him since whenever. But, however much I’ve loved his mid-sixties music since it first whopped me up side the head in the late seventies, I wasn’t prepared to have what I had imagined to be Dylan-the-Burgeoning-Folkie make such a purely vocal impression and then sustain it for the length of that first album.

And that, in turn, might be why I was/am so unprepared for the restrictions he put on himself when it came time to make his second album. On the first four tracks (which only include “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “Masters of War”), he doesn’t sound so much like he put his harp in his pocket as somebody shoved it up his sphincter. Sorry, but this doesn’t sound like a man breaking free. Maybe it did then. Maybe the mere fact that he didn’t “sing pretty” was liberating and forward-looking. These days, it sounds almost impossibly affected, the epitome of everything every note of his first album had been prepared to mock–the sound of freedom reduced to the sound of surrender.

And, except for his always cutting way with a talking blues (though he cut even deeper on live shows from the period), he sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the whole thing.

Given what I know about both the purely cynical crony capitalists who are forever lingering somewhere in the background of every inexplicable thing and the highly gullible earnest folkies who snatched up Freewheelin’ and then carried Dylan right up to the moment he stabbed them in the face by “going electric,” I suspect this is the sound of a supremely calculating young man who has judged the odds and accepted what must be done to get where he is going from where he’s been.

It’s also the sound of a man who might be harboring a grudge against more than just the masters of war–a grudge that would carry him right past his core audience when it was finally time to merge the various “Dylans” of these first two LPs into the full might and fury of Highway 61 Revisited.

Heard that way, Freewheelin’ becomes almost as subversive as either Bob Dylan or its own legend.

That’s how genius rolls, I guess–if you’re moving a little too fast…slow down and wait for the main chance.

And, as always, God bless Peter, Paul and Mary and/or Albert Grossman for hearing hits in “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

I not only wouldn’t have, I still don’t. Miracles happen.

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.

THE RAMBLIN’ MAN REACHES OUT….AND TAKES HOLD (What Impressed Me This Week)

Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave
David Acomba, Director (1980)

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Serendipity and fair’s fair.

Without Greil Marcus going on about this back in 1990 (when it re-aired on the Nashville Network and Marcus evidently thought it was new) and me reading about it in his newly collected Real Life Rock columns and then, mere days later, coming across a cheap copy in the dollar store just down the road that I only started going to a few months back because I discovered they sold the hydrocortisone salve I occasionally use on an unspeakable rash for a quarter less than the one right next to my house this never would have found it’s way to my DVD player and I’d be a poorer man without even knowing it.

Without benefit of either looking or sounding much like the original, Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters, who had played the role on stage for years, inhabits Williams the same way Philip Baker Hall inhabited Richard Nixon in Secret Honor a few years later. As with Hall, I spent the first minute thinking “this is never gonna work.” Then the second minute arrived and the meaningful distinctions between actor, role and role model disappeared. I never concluded whether this was more reassuring than disorienting but I was riveted either way. Five minutes in, I knew there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks.

The setup is simple enough (and enough like Secret Honor to make me wonder if Robert Altman saw this when it first aired). Hank is taking his famous last ride through an Appalachian night (he died in the back seat of his chauffeured car somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia), and, drifting in and out of consciousness, he dreams of stopping off and giving a show in one of the small town bars where, by chance, his band is already set up and waiting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd who could probably never afford a trip to the Opry.

You can watch movies a long time and never find anyone walking a tighter wire than Waters, director Acomba and playwright/screenwriter Maynard Collins do here. Part of the tension in a first viewing of something like this is in wondering if/when somebody will set a foot wrong. When it never happens, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, because the slightest slip, the one that always feels like it’s coming any second now, would wreck the mood.

It never happens here.This is one of those instances where even the technical limitations work entirely in the movie’s favor. That scene pictured above is just about what the movie looks like and while some of that is probably due to a low-grade transfer I had a feeling a pristine copy wouldn’t look much better. It certainly wouldn’t work any better, because anything clearer wouldn’t let you smell the smoke and whiskey.

Most remarkably, it’s all in there. The Hank Williams Story. Between his songs, the stories he tells to set them up, the bitter remonstrances of his waking moments in the back seat of his Doom-mobile, you get a  distillation that touches everything essential and has a feeling of completion, as though he (Williams himself, more than the actor or the filmmakers) is scripting his own life and planning to live just long enough to reach the only end that was ever possible.

And the biggest part of that story isn’t the alcoholism or the Dr. Feelgoods or marriage or divorce or fatherhood or spats with the band or even the Death’s Head hanging over his shoulder. No, the biggest part, and the part the movie catches so well it’s literally breathtaking is the connection to his audience, the final quality that made him the standard country singers–and country lives–were measured against for half a century.

Until, that is, very, very recently.

The people who clap and dance and fight and “Hallelujah!” their way through this film’s imaginary show aren’t represented as characters, but they aren’t reduced to types either. They have a collective life and three-dimensionality that goes beyond even the air of lives being lived that deepens John Ford’s universe.  And, whether seen as extras in a low-budget movie that started filming the day John Lennon was assassinated, or literal ghosts of the audience Hank Williams must have sometimes felt he had dreamed into being, there will be a day in the not too distant future when they’ll be unrecognizable. A twenty-year-old might have trouble recognizing them now. Living in a world where it’s always Saturday night has not only robbed Williams’ principal themes of longing and regret of the force they had for the audience that swirls back and forth between him and you while this film is running, it’s also taken the fun out of Saturday night itself.

Whether it was possible to self-consciously articulate this lost world’s distance from the present in 1980, I don’t know. But the feelings inherent in the loss must have at least been available to the senses, because without even calling on “Lost Highway” or “Ramblin’ Man” (there is a chilling version of “Alone and Forsaken”), Sneezy Waters and company managed to write themselves into the Hank Williams story and enlarge an already legendary life it in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any movie, let alone a “biopic” that consists entirely of a car-ride and a fake concert that never happened.

I’m sure it’s possible to see this and write it off. It’s not Citizen Kane. On some level, it’s barely even there.

But I’d advise approaching it with caution

If it gets you, it might not let you go.

 

MY FAVORITE MURDER BALLAD (Not So Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1975]
As if recalling Appalachian roots, the youngest superstar and sex symbol in country music history adds rape, murder, and bastardy to familiar themes like drunkeness, poverty, abandonment, and love-is-the-answer. Kid stuff it ain’t. Her burred contralto is an American dream, some weird hybrid of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marilyn Monroe, and Will Rogers–dirty plainsong. But though I enjoy almost everything she does as soap opera–the bloodier the better–I don’t believe a word. B+ (Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the ’70s)

As if?

It’s funny. Growing up among a bunch of transplanted Appalachians (including my parents) in Florida, I found that the general reaction to Tanya Tucker songs was along the lines of “sounds like Cousin Jimmy’s side of the family.”

I suspect it was more or less the same everywhere from West Virginia to West Texas.

We believed every word

Not literally of course.

Just spiritually.

We believed she knew what we knew. And we believed she knew who we knew.

We believed she knew of whence she sang.

I still believe we were right.

Robert Christgau can go suck an egg.

I don’t mean to say that Tanya was universally beloved. Even when she started out and was still prone to at least saying all the things everybody from West Virginia to West Texas was trained to expect, “wild child” was still the phrase that was made to fit. It didn’t take her too long to make it fit literally. But she had one quality from the beginning that every real country star needs for long term acceptance: the ability to get people who never met her to talk about her as if she was one of the family.

The black sheep maybe, the one you had to keep an eye on maybe, but still.

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Given all that, it was actually kind of reasonable she would get to sing a murder song or two, no matter how young she was.

Murder songs aren’t unheard of in American music, of course. One even makes the charts now and then. Country has maybe had a few more than its share, though not nearly as many as your average Ivy Leaguer  who loves his bluegrass collection might assume. As hits go, they aren’t really as common as other kinds of death songs: suicide songs, accident songs, I feel like I’m gonna die songs.

It takes a very special kind of singer to pull off a straightforward, ice-cold murder song and leave the camp out of it–to make it sound like something that seeped out of the air as naturally as the weather. Bessie Smith used to do it. Ralph Stanley used to do it. Hank Williams could have done it if he had put his mind to it.

None of them were fifteen.

That makes a difference. Fifteen-year-olds who are born performers don’t tend to have a filter. They develop one, eventually. It’s necessary to their own survival and maybe more necessary if they’ve come out of the gates selling millions of records. But there tends to be a phase in there where everything inessential is cut away and whatever they really invest in goes straight from their brain to your brain, if you’re willing to let down your guard and meet them on their own level.

So it was with my favorite murder ballad…

Considering the number of folks in my neighborhood who spoke wistfully of the days (several months before) when she sang stuff like “The Jamestown Ferry,” where she merely chased her man “through his kingdom of honky-tonks and bars,” remembering all the great sex they had back in the days when he swore he’d never leave her, it wasn’t a slam dunk that such a song would be a hit, let alone become the permanent most requested number on Goth Night in The Hall of the Mountain Kings.

But I’ve seen the file, tucked away in the bowels of the Security State, and, even if that’s a whole other story, I promise I wouldn’t lie to you.

And just FYI: I’m giving it the slightest nod over “No Man’s Land” because it was a hit and because about ten years back, on the only occasion I’ve heard it on the radio since the seventies, it wasted everything programmed within ten miles of it in any direction I cared to turn.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Harmony Group Singer: Rock and Roll Division….Probably preceded by my carefully considered definition of a rock and roll harmony group).

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.

RUNNING DOWN THE ROAD WITH THE SKYDOG (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Session #13)

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Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.

It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.

Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.

He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…

to firm embrace…

to death-grip…

…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.

Thanks Duane.

When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.

ONE MORE DEBT I WON’T GET TO PAY IN THIS LIFE…(Great Quotations)

“Fully 95 percent of the stuff I learned about recording, I learned in the studio with Joe South.”

(Source: Emory Gordy, Jr., quoted in “Joe South: Down In the Boondocks” American Songwriter, March/April 2007)

You never know exactly what you owe or exactly who you owe it to. Some times you get to find out a little.

Though he played with practically everybody (Elvis for starters) and produced more than a few, Emory Gordy, Jr. is most famous these days for being Patty Loveless’ husband and long-time producer. Anybody who doesn’t already know how I feel about Ms. Loveless can type her name in the search button in the upper right hand corner and find out quick enough. Anybody who wants to know how I feel about Joe South can go here for at least a small taste.

And now there’s a solid link between them. Gee, and I already thought I owed Joe a lot.

There are any number of artists’ songbooks I’d like to see Patty have a go at (including very particularly Bob Dylan and Jagger/Richards…she’s already got a pretty fine track record with Hank Williams, though extending it would be another nice idea).

But after encountering that quote above, I just realized that, with apologies to Tom T. Hall, I’d give a hundred dollars to hear her sing this just once:

 

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.