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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