THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Winter, 2016 Countdown)

10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)

This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.

The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.

Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)

A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.

Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.

One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.

8) The Orlons Best of (1961-1966) (2005)

Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups  who sustained even a modest string of hits.

While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.

And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.

7) Fleetwood Mac Rumours  (1977) (2-Disc version, aka Ghost Rumours, released 2004)

I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.

I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean  “alive.”

Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.

6) Mark Chesnutt The Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)

Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.

From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.

It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.

If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.

5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)

Speaking of cranking the volume.

Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).

4) The Platters The Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)

Shelter from the storm.

If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.

Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.

And in one respect,Tony was even greater than Chuck Berry. Plenty of guitar players have forged out past Chuck on some ground or other that he broke open. No ballad singer has ever gotten past this anywhere…unless maybe it was Tony Wiliams.

.3) The Isley Brothers Givin’ It Back (1971)

A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.

It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.

I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).

2) Dwight Yoakum Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)

Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.

Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.

Same thing this time.

This time, like every other time, I left what I was doing and came into the room for this.

1) Martha & the Vandellas Live Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)

Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.

What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.

 

 

 

STILL TRYING WE ARE…(Segue of the Day: 12/8/16)

This was sort of big news a couple of weeks back, and, as attempts to recreate the revolution that came out of Elvis Presley’s head in 1954 go–you know, the whole R&B crossed with Country thing–it sure beats Questlove’s idea about trying to recapture that old time feeling in workshops. I’ve never been bowled over by either the Dixie Chicks or Beyonce, but this jumps:

What got me interested–where it came to my attention–was on Patty Loveless’s Facebook page, where she had it up, then took it down, evidently because her page administrator was getting too much hate-back.

This is what she put in its place. She’s sly, Miss Patty is.

WHAT IS POLITICS?

Here’s three post-election attempts to understand “those people” through a pop culture lens:

From Observer:

How Bruce Springsteen cost Hillary the Election.

Key quote:

“Imagine this:

“What if Bruce Springsteen had gotten into a van and trailed Donald Trump to every campaign stop over the last four weeks (or even the last two). Imagine if every time Donald Trump set up to speak, Bruce got out of his van, strolled to a street corner or park a few blocks away, strapped on an acoustic guitar, and began to sing. Maybe he would sing songs about the working men and women who have always been his constituency, or maybe he would sign songs of Boardwalks or Vietnam, or maybe he would sing the old songs of freedom and unity that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger sang.

“Imagine that.”

From Slate:

How Miranda Lambert could save us all.

Key quote:

:If you have any curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with, how they become jaded day by day, Lambert can tell you.”

From The Federalist:

When the ghost of Ronnie Van Zant stalked New York.

Key quote:

Libby and I both stopped and looked at each other. “Seriously?” said my wife, a very disappointed Clinton supporter. She started gripping her soft Tomme Crayeuse a little too hard. By the time Ronnie Van Zant’s drawl started in with “Big wheels keep on turnin’,” everyone in the store was standing in shock. Brows were furrowed, people mumbled to each other. The song seemed to get louder as one of those New York moments happened, when everyone was thinking the exact the same thing.

One reason I’ve always tried to read across a broad spectrum of political views is so I don’t forget anyone’s existence. If I keep myself sufficiently up-to-date, I find the world holds very few surprises.

So none of this is surprising.

But boy is a lot of it dumb. I linked the full articles. You can read them and make your own judgments.

My take:

For starters, if Bruce Springsteen ever really was the voice of the working class that Tim Sommer seems to think he still is (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), he traded that status for standard Limousine Liberalism a long time ago. That no one ever worked harder at resisting the change (well, except maybe Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) is proof of how seductive–maybe just plain inevitable–some changes are.

For Springsteen to connect with Donald Trump’s voters, would have meant sounding a lot like Donald Trump, no?

And who would trust him then?

Maybe Miranda Lambert’s fans?

Maybe. But who’s to say they aren’t Springsteen fans (i.e., not Trump supporters!) already?

If the audience Carl Wilson is writing for at Slate had any real “curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with” they would have made Miranda’s idol and dear friend, Patty Loveless, a crossover superstar twenty years ago. And if the Country Music Association has lauded Lambert with six Female Vocalist of the Year awards (which is six times more than they awarded it to Loveless), it’s precisely because its voting members know that she goes down well at The Village Voice and all the other organs of hipsterism that the people who buy most of Lambert’s records don’t give a rip about. Right or wrong, everybody at Slate is pretty sure they know who Miranda Lambert voted for. With Patty Loveless–the singer who caught the spirit of the “White Death,” which drove Trump’s support more than the next ten factors combined, two decades before it started showing up in statistical studies–who could ever tell?

I mean, could you trust her to toe the line?

May-y-y-y-be.

But then you never really know about these hillbillies, do you?

Which brings me to Ronnie Van Zant. The Federalist writer, David Marcus, attempts to explain that he personally gets it. There’s the usual stuff about how the origin of “Sweet Home Alabama” is way more complicated than is usually understood, etc. and more of the stuff you’d expect from someone who is more enlightened than his fellow good liberals because he thinks maybe the hicks have a point here and there, or that, at every least, the idea should be entertained. It’s all very familiar.

What Marcus does not quite do is admit–or perhaps understand–that Ronnie Van Zant would never be easily pigeon-holed into any neatly composed narrative. Not the way Bruce Springsteen and Miranda Lambert, for all their fine personal and artistic qualities, have been. Missing that, he’s really just substituting one easy formula for another. A really political moment in that Brooklyn boutique grocery store he’s describing would involve telling at least one person–his wife maybe–that you should listen to Ronnie Van Zant, the real life Huck Finn, a little more, not because it will help you understand Trump voters, but because, like listening to Bruce Springsteen or Miranda Lambert, it will help you understand the world.

Good luck with that.

RESTLESS KIND (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #86)

Patty Loveless has been semi-retired for about seven years (her last album, a work of genius some marketing guru decided to call Mountain Soul II, was released in 2009). She shows up at the Opry once in a while, takes a session vocal for a friend here and there, does a live number with Miranda Lambert now and again. That’s about it. A few weeks ago, she dropped in for a Country Music Hall of Fame celebration and sang a couple of standards.

The first is “Crazy Arms,” and, of course, she nailed it.

But on the second number, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” she used a voice I’ve never heard from her and, despite the spotty sound, did something I’ve never heard anyone do, which is add something vital to one of Cline’s signature songs.

In the introduction, she also says she’s never sung it for a live audience before (surprising, given how often she’s covered classics in concert and how frequently she was a go-to session singer for anybody who wanted to capture a classic country sound of just about any type across three decades)….It starts at 5:35, though I recommend the whole thing.

Genius never rests…or just never quite lets you rest.

All of which means that if she came back tomorrow, she’d be just as much a shock to the system’s rawest nerve as she was back when.

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.

SOME BEAUTIFUL DAY (Ralph Stanley, R.I.P.)

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(Ralph Stanley (left), with his brother Carter)

Back in the days when Nashville was close enough to the mountains for a little of the hardest music made there to slip on to the radio now and again Bill Monroe reached the country charts all of nine times. The Louvin Brothers made it twelve times (after which Charlie had a substantial career of his own), Flatt and Scruggs fifteen.

The Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph, made it once, in 1960. All the way to #17 with “How Far to Little Rock,” a “talking” record with corny jokes and banjo.

That was their version of selling out.

Most of the rest of the time–and by most, I mean about ninety-nine percent–they played music so pure Ralph, the survivor (Carter was killed in a car accident in 1966), didn’t even consider it bluegrass.

Which, despite his calling it “old time mountain music” and such, maybe just meant he considered his own sound its own category or simply beyond category, as nameless as any ghost.

The Stanleys kicked up some dust in the mid-sixties revival that discovered all kinds of old-timey music. Carter was barely 40 and Ralph two years younger when they toured Europe in 1966. But Carter’s death soon after ended any chance they would ever really resonate outside their region, which stretched roughly from their Virginia birth place (McClure, a range or two over from my father’s birth place in East Tennessee) to Live Oak, Florida (where they had a radio show the year I was born, a couple of hours away), to somewhere in the Ozarks.

Ralph stayed a trouper. He carried the torch for decades after his brother’s death. His band providing a launching pad for future stars like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley and he played the Opry and the road constantly, finding a final stretch of fame as the Grand Old Man of the ‘grass revival kicked up by the success of O, Brother Where Art Thou at the turn of the millennium.

But as important as all that was, it paled next to what the Stanley Brothers got up to in their heyday, between the late forties and early sixties. Starting out as inspired imitators of Monroe (they were good enough to make him mad at first), they soon developed a style so stark and spare it left them in a pocket all their own–a pocket no hit novelty could ever lift them out of. If any song became a signature, recognizable to a literati beyond their core fan base, it was “Rank Stranger,” an Alfred Brumley tune they transformed into the kind of record that is bound to defy whatever you think can follow it. Ralph sang one line and a little harmony. It’s the line that made Carter’s lead, the loneliest sound otherwise imaginable to human ken, sound like Mel Torme.

Ralph Stanley was an inspired picker, a strong songwriter, a great ambassador, a non-pareil harmony singer. He left hundreds of fine records and live performances in dozens of settings (check his duet with Patty Loveless on “Pretty Polly” at the Opry some time).

But his entire spirit, everything he really was, was in that single line.

“Everybody I met, seemed to be a rank stranger.”

How do I know?

How does anybody know.

I listened.

No strangers tonight, I reckon.

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THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Summer, 2016 Edition)

And what I heard this time (just for fun…and because I feel a round of lists coming on)…

10) Time Life Ultimate Seventies: 1976 (1989)

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Driving around music. I could have done better by 1976 myself (it was the year I started listening to the radio). But even an collection of middling taste beats any hour you could spend listening to anything on the radio in my market these days. Best segue: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (closely linked to me being nearly thrown out of my one and only true rock concert experience which naturally took place in a Jai Alai fronton) into “Sara Smile” (closely linked to my dad’s car being stolen at an amusement park and the FBI giving him the heebie jeebies later that summer at self-same Jai Alai fronton, which was all way-y-y-y more interesting than it sounds). Pick to click: Spinners’ “Rubberband Man,” which I barely heard that year and is one of the most mind-blowing records ever made.

9) Gino Washington Out of This World (1962–68) (1999)

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Essential to any collection. Gino was a rock and roll Martian. There were a few of them hanging round back then. He started as a Frank Guida knockoff maybe, who didn’t happen to record for Frank Guida (like Gary U.S. Bonds and Jimmy Soul) and therefore didn’t make as much noise on the charts as he should have. But “Gino Is a Coward” gave the concept a whole new way of being, and nothing, certainly not the soul sixties, could lay even a touch of slick on him. Listening this time did what it always does. Made me smile a lot.

8) The Corin Tucker Band 1,000 Years (2010)

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I keep circling Tucker’s principal band, Sleater-Kinney, without quite being able to land. I’m really not sure why. I doubt it’s anything rational. It could be that her strong similarity to Belinda Carlisle’s timbre and phrasing (though she puts them to quite different and original use) just causes my natural “they’re-the-Go-Go’s-and-you’re-not” response to kick in with extra-super strength.

That said, I’m also not quite sure why my response to this, which I just started listening to a few weeks ago, is so strong. It might be because it temporarily solves punk’s (for me) existential problem, which is my lack of conviction that angst-ridden, collegiate white people need their own version of the blues. But this does sound like a unique, modern version of the blues–not in form but in feeling. It’s haunting and immediate, odd but free of quirkiness-for-it’s-own-sake. Whether I’ll like it even more or a little less once I figure out the words, I have no idea. There’s no one pick to click. It’s of a piece. But “It’s Always Summer” does as well as any for an introduction.

7) The Mamas & the Papas A Gathering of Flowers (1966-68) (2013–originally released, 1970)

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I wrote about this a little when I first acquired it. Nothing’s changed. The Real Gone re-release is the best sounding collection of their work to date and there is no act where getting the sound right is more important. In recent years, I’ve probably listened to them more than any sixties’ group except possibly the Stones. The distance between those poles isn’t nearly as profound as I (and many others) once assumed. Yes, there’s a piece in the works. Pray for me kids.

Granted, I’d still rather listen to whole albums or box sets, where their roiling ethos is on fullest display. But, every once in a while, I just have to throw this on and smile the smiled of the contented. No pick to click. Too many to choose from. But, as of now, there’s no better place to appreciate a “minor” track like “Did You Ever Want to Cry” (even if you can only really appreciate it on a proper player, with headphones).

6) The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (2002 CD release)

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And when I listen to the Stones it’s rarely this standard set, which has been derided by plenty who think it too obvious, too square, too perfectly representative of what people latch on to when they aren’t real deep-dyed Stones’ fans and only want to stay on the surface.

Okay, I confess that I can’t play most of my Stones’ CDs from this period right now because, for some reason, the ancient player I have hooked up to my main receiver won’t accept the versions I own. It won’t take my Kinks’ CDs either. I need a new player!

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great collection. About half of this never-quit set is from truly great albums, but, by my lights, about half of it isn’t. And “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” aren’t on anything but comps–this being the best. Besides, what’s better than having the hits, the hits, and nothing but the hits (or at least signature tunes), roll over you, one right after the other? Never understood the “if you don’t like the Stones, this might serve as a sampler” mindset (Christgau, but he spoke for plenty of others). No one pick to click, of course, but for fun facts, you can’t beat the “Honky Tonk Women” being Doris Troy and Reparata and the Delrons (watch those “Diamonds in the Shade” updates folks!).

5) Patty Loveless Sleepless Nights (2008)

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This was one of those instances where it took me a while to catch up. It’s a “covers” album from what now looks like it will be the tail end of Loveless’s career. I took it for a good solid effort when it came out. As usual, there was more there than met the ear (I first began to suspect when I heard one of the “lesser” cuts in the middle of some fifties’ era honky tonk on an oldies country station we used to have around here…it fit so perfectly it took me half the song to even place it). Back then it was just another good Patty Loveless album. Now that it looks like there aren’t going to be any more, it cuts deeper. Bone deep sometimes. Pick to click: a complete re-imagining of the Davis Sisters’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”

4) Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors (1977)

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Skynyrd and Patty are such natural traveling companions (I never take a long driving trip without them) I end up listening to them in tandem at home quite a bit. No better way to appreciate how much country was in Ronnie Van Zandt’s singing (or how much Southern Rock was in Patty’s). You could miss it otherwise when “What’s Your Name” and “That Smell” roll over you straight out of the gate. All of the original band’s albums are great and I’m not sure they were actually getting better just before the crash. But there was no sign they were wearing out, the way even bands as great as War or Led Zeppelin were at similar points in their careers. We’ll never know what all we missed when that plane went down, but they were still searching for something. Try “I Never Dreamed” for something beyond the obvious.

3) Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons Jersey Beat (1962-1992) (2007: Box set)

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This was finally assembled after the smash success of Jersey Boys on Broadway. Before that improbable event, it had become all too easy to forget how big they were, how deep the catalog was, how logical they seemed without being the least bit repeatable. (“I protested the war in Viet Nam,” Jersey Boys script-writer Marshall Brickman told Bob Gaudio when they were brainstorming. “When you’re  writing this,” Gaudio said, “Just remember my audience were the ones fighting it.” There was a reason waitresses and beat cops and other middle-age working class types paid Broadway prices to see the resulting show twenty and thirty times over. That reason is here.)

Everybody knows the big hits. After Jersey Boys, most people even started to remember just how numerous they were. Now that the world is preparing to forget again, I’m extra glad this exists. I can’t say I listen to all four CDs all the way through very often. But when I do, I’m always reminded this is the best insurance against all future memory holes. Except for a couple of late so-so sides at the end of the fourth disc, this doesn’t even come close to quitting. Among several dozen obscure and semi-obscure gems, I especially recommend “Girl Come Running,” which might be the most perfect song ever written and arranged for Valli’s multiplicity of voices.

2) Natalie Merchant The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003)

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In which she finally reveals herself as Sandy Denny’s long lost daughter, all grown up.

I’ve only had this a little while and, to tell the truth, I have to be in a particular doomy-but-not-too-doomy mood to throw it on. When I do, it weaves a spell. In some world that offered unlimited time and space, I could imagine obsessing on it. As it stands: a mood piece for a very particular mood.

For a pick to click, try “Diver Boy” But I warn you, that’s her fast one. Dead Girl Poetry and the Bo Diddley Beat, they do not mix.

1) Dion King of the New York Streets (1958-1999: Box Set)

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A wanderer on a journey. This set covers forty years of that journey so it’s bound to be a little disjointed. At three discs, It’s too broad to deliver the deep focus several different phases of his career deserve, and not broad enough to keep the transitions from jarring. Plus, no “Sonny Boy” and no “I Knew the Bride” so it can’t be definitive in my book. Plus, there’s now a whole post-millennial phase which I understand has brought him back to the blues obsession he first started exploring in the mid-sixties (and is hinted at by a few cuts at the end of the disc one here).

It’s still the best overview out there,especially if you want to find out whether the post doo-wop career is worth your time (which it certainly is). Pick to click for the coming summer is 1971’s “Sanctuary” which is not currently available on YouTube. Somebody must know something. Just for fun, then, close it with this, which could maybe be dedicated to Corin Tucker if you’re brave enough.

REAGAN AND THE DONALD IN “HERE WE GO AGAIN,”…SKEETER AND PATTY IN “THERE WE WENT…AGAIN” (Segue of the Day: 5/6/16)

It is just now dawning on the Professional Right that the inherently unstable coalition (my fellow Southern Evangelicals, alas, and Wall Street) which formed around Ronald Reagan in 1980 and turned 36 years old this year, has, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy (which they have spent months reassuring themselves was not inevitable) shattered on the ground.

You can read around the net and find their responses, which must be rather like those that old line New Dealers read into the record after watching the 1968 Democratic Convention when, just as suddenly and just as inevitably, FDR’s equally unstable coalition (Northern Liberals and Dixiecrats), then 36 years old, came apart in an instant.

Now as then, such responses are generally heartfelt, often erudite, surely bewildered. My own guess is that, even if he wins the presidency, Trump won’t be the actual change agent, that he will end up playing Richard Nixon to someone else’s Reagan…or Woodrow Wilson (a wrecking ball whom Trump would surely recognize as a kindred spirit under that prim exterior if he only knew history) to someone else’s Roosevelt.

I’ll leave the scholarly erudition and the gnashing of teeth to others. Meanwhile, I’ll just  keep waking up every morning, trying to feel what the air is like now….and remember what it was like then.

Watching the cataclysm of 1980 coming, Bruce Springsteen used to cover “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” in his concerts and I seem to remember reading somewhere that he sang “Bad Moon Rising” right after Reagan was elected.

Good choices. But a little obvious.

Me, I always dedicate the Supremes’ “Reflections” to every outgoing president and fully anticipate doing the same for the current president next January.

But today I feel like coming up with a dedication for every incoming president…a whisper in our collective ear every time a new white knight rides in out of the sunset.

So, lest we forget, here’s to you Ronald Reagan, once upon a time…

And here’s to you, Donald Trump, as you bring the latest crowd roaring to its feet in coal country tonight…

 

MY FAVORITE ALBUM ARTIST (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):

My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)

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My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)

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My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)

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My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)

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My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)

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I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.

But have no fear. You can file all that away.

You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.

Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).

Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.

But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.

To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.

And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:

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Or her…

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Al Green or Patty Loveless.

Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?

I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.

For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.

Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.

Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).

As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.

As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.

After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…

bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).

Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).

Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.

Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.

Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.

Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…

or this….;

Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).

Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.

Each walked down.

In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter

In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.

Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.

The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.

And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…

For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.

And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.

No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.

They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.

But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.

I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.

And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.

The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.

But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.

It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.

They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.

They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.

I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:

I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).

It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.

“Sing for us!” it said.

Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.

Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)

WHAT’S IN A VOICE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #64)

I don’t do a whole lot of lists, but I’m not immune to them. If I ever got really full of myself (or something stronger) and did one that was titled something like “The Ten Most Beautiful Records Ever Made,” Jeannie Kendall, who most of the world has never hear of, and is remembered by most of those who have for “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and nothing else, would probably be singing on about seven of them.

One of those would be her recorded version of “Making Believe,” which would also top any list entitled “The Greatest Versions of ‘Making Believe.'”

And “Making Believe” is one of the few songs that actually has enough great versions to warrant a list. It’s one of those songs nearly every country giant (and not a few from other fields) has not only taken a crack at but done justice by. The great country women, either soloing or duetting (as Jeannie did with her father) have been especially drawn to it: Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Anita Carter, Emmylou Harris, Loretta and Conway, Patty and Vince. That’s in addition to Merle Haggard, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.

You know, like that.

Just at the high end. Just for starters.

But on record, nobody made it cut like the Kendalls.

My improbable discovery of the past week was that they made it cut even deeper on Austin City Limits, way back when:

And my other not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that it still doesn’t cut as deep as “Just Like Real People” or “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” or “I’m Coming Down Lonely,” which is so obscure that it’s not even on YouTube.

So my final not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that we’re not living in a perfect world just yet.

But, you know, stay tuned. Anything could happen.