PRONUNCIATION AND POWER (Adventures in Language: Sixth Journey)

I’ve never felt as strongly about the local pronunciation of Appalachia as Sharyn McCrumb, the great Appalachian novelist who traces her ancestry (early 1790s) to almost exactly the date I do, expresses here…

…But, having been corrected more than a time or two myself, I understand where she’s coming from. Having a quarter-millennia’s worth of forebears who might have taught you a thing or two cuts no ice with those (all good people) who long to “correct” you.

I’ve never argued with anyone about it. No sense in that. Everyone knows what they know and everyone knows that what they know is right.

“My people were the ones who named the place, they oughta know how to pronounce it!” is of no value whatsoever.

It might be the principal reason that, when we’re forced to choose, we all run back the tribes. Because, deep down, we all know the better world waiting won’t be found here, no matter how many times we’re promised that, if we just vote the right way a few more times, we won’t be forced to choose because, pretty soon, well all get along….or else….

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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LAST OF THE OLD, FIRST OF THE NEW (R.I.P. Phil Everly)

Rock and roll reached a long way, never further than when somebody proved that the least likely of the tried-and-true source traditions–the brother duo singing mountain harmony–could fit right in.

The proof came courtesy of Phil Everly, who passed yesterday, and his brother Don. Groomed in the world of the Blue Sky Boys and the Stanley Brothers–a world that sounded even older, lonelier and more isolated from modernity than it was–they created a world where the possibilities reached as far and high as any American music ever has or ever will.

Hundreds came after, some obvious (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, much of the history of rock for a generation in other words) some not so obvious (Mary Weiss has said that the Shangri-Las found themselves by practicing to the Everlys records, Stevie Nicks assuaged the hurt of having “Silver Springs” rejected for Rumours┬áby taking solace in the fact that the song which replaced it, “I Don’t Want to Know,” gave her and Lindsey Buckingham a chance to do what she termed “our Everly Brothers thing,” and, frankly, any two people who have ever put their heads next a microphone to sing either close or contrapuntal harmony since the late fifties could say some version of the same).

Considering that this list only scratches the surface and further considering how far those acts reached, it’s entirely possible that the Everlys, in purely direct and musical terms, influenced more great records than even the greatest and most visionary of their contemporaries.

That’s saying a mouthful and of course its a mouthful that’s not subject to mathematical proof. But if you listen to what came after with an open ear and an awareness that rock and roll is vocal music before and after it is anything else you certainly find them in as many places–expected and unexpected–as anyone, be it Elvis or Ray or Chuck or James or whoever.

Make no mistake though.

Legions came after, sure enough.

Nobody touched them.

(NOTE: On the day after a white southerner who changed the world infinitely for the better passed away, he still came second on my initial Google search among his Christian name-sakes to Phil Robertson, a man who has evidently never acknowledged the need for those changes and who could never have gotten anywhere near celebrity in the hidebound fifties. As I have been known to say: Goodbye us.)