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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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).

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.