DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Johnny Bush Up)

“Daddy Lived In Houston”
Johnny Bush  (1972)
Not released as a single
Recommended source: Bush Country (Vinyl Only)

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Country music is in one of its periodic funks these days. So my ears tell me.

This funk will last. So my common sense tells me.

Traditional music forms need traditional cultures to survive. When there’s nothing to affirm there’s nothing to rebel against either. And vice versa. Take away the limits tradition imposes and pretty soon you are pushing air.

Pretty soon after that you are sucking oxygen in a Brave New World.

In human terms, this might not be entirely lamentable. No one could envy the narrator of Johnny Bush’s “Daddy Lived In Houston,” as he describes, in gimlet-eyed detail, his father’s abandonment of his rural family to chase money (and, doubtless, women as well) in Houston’s war-time shipbuilding yards.

That is, no one could envy his material circumstance. This is a song nearly any good country singer of Bush’s generation, or any generation that preceded it, could have sung with conviction. No singer of the current generation could sing it without taking a leap of the imagination. Even in the previous generation (the one that succeeded Bush’s), it’s hard to identify anyone but Patty Loveless who ever felt anything like the pinch of real poverty, which might be why Loveless’s voice predicted Appalachia’s current epidemic of meth-fueled White Death by a generation even as her New Nashville lyrics espoused conventional aspiration.

Surely that’s a good thing, though. No one wants anyone to starve. No one wants any child to have to clear rabbit traps every morning just so his family can eat.

Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for. A world without pain or want has ended up being mostly a world where people imagine new forms of victimhood. That’s what all the angst you hear on the modern radio–including modern country radio–is about. Look at me. Or, if you like, Listen to me. Isn’t my pain real? Here, if you think it’s not, I’ll take another deep breath and add twenty more rounds of melisma just to prove you’re WRONG!

“Daddy Lived in Houston” is a great record not least because its lyric does not preclude the notion that Bush’s narrator has grown up to be just like his daddy. Call it a blues. Half talking, half opera. Muted pain and guilt, then, and a thousand times more powerful than anything you’ll hear on the radio today, when pain can only be faked and guilt isn’t even a concept.

Bush, a good candidate for the most under-sung great country singer ever, had hits through the late sixties and the seventies, a long if mostly modest run, including a definitive “You Gave Me a Mountain,” and records as monumental as “You Ought to Hear Me Cry” and “Undo the Right.” This, never released as a single and, so far as I can tell, unavailable on CD, was his masterpiece. A sigh of relief that we don’t have to go there anymore….and a reminder that all of nature–including the human part–abhors a vacuum.

TRAIN ROLL ON (John Morthland and George Martin, R.I.P.)

I don’t know enough about John Morthland to do him full justice or enough about George Martin to say anything a hundred others won’t but both meant too much in my world to let either’s passing go by without a word.

Morthland was one of the best rock and country critics in the world for decades. His name on anything–bylines, liner notes, the cover of a book–meant you were going to find opinions that were concise, knowledgeable, well-earned and his own.

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His magnum opus was 1984’s The Best of Country Music. No book had more impact on my listening habits in those early days or any day since. I knew the iconic heroes of country music before, plus a good bit of what had come along in the seventies. But Morthland both turned me on to and deepened my appreciation of a whole other world, one that included the likes of Floyd Tillman, Don Gibson, Jeannie Kendall, Norma Jean, Johnny Bush and Dottie West among many, many others. I found that, on a list of 750 country albums meant to trace the shape of the music’s entire history, nearly every one of his recommendations repaid whatever effort it cost to track it down, often a hundred times over. My only regret is that I never got a chance to tell him so. Hope this will help explain how I feel about missing the chance:

As for Sir George…well, he hired the Beatles. Sure, somebody probably would have done it if he hadn’t. Somebody might have even brought the same musical erudition to their little project. But the number of people in the British music industry with real vision and talent, circa 1962, wasn’t so large that anything was guaranteed. And, as some wag noted last night, when you’re in the old folks home and the guy lying in the bed next to you asks what you did with your time, “Well, I produced Rubber Soul,” is pretty hard to beat.

The lesson, as always, is that there is little in human history that could not be improved by a remake. We should never take any of the exceeding few things that turned out perfectly for granted.

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