I have to confess that singer/songwriter John Prine’s voice never moved me. I got to know his songs through other people–but there were a lot of them and a lot of singers did them justice: Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, Swamp Dogg, Bette Midler, to name just a few. Everybody got up for a John Prine song.
No one who follows along here will be surprised that my favorite Prine cover was by Jackie DeShannon on her wondrous Atlantic LP, Jackie from 1972. In its double-length CD version (only half was released initially), it’s one of the great concept albums, tied together by spiritual, rather than philosophical or lyrical themes. In any version, the first cut, a rendition of Prine’s “Paradise,” set the tone–game recognizing game on a song that probably struck an even deeper autobiographical chord for her than for him.
I’ve always thought the biggest mistake of Linda Ronstadt’s career (whether hers or her record company’s I can only guess) was not releasing “Roll Um Easy” as the first single from the next album after Heart Like a Wheel had transformed her from a huge talent to a huge star. It would have inoculated her against the criticism that she was merely mining oldies as a surefire commercial formula. It would have laid the “she can’t rock” nonsense to rest because the single that was released, a perfectly fine version of ‘Heat Wave” which plenty of people were predisposed to hate for any number of not very good reasons, would have stayed an album track and nobody would have cared about her admission that she had trouble getting a handle on it even if they had bothered to ask.
And, while there’s no way to know these things of course, I’m pretty sure Ronstadt singing “eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue” over that arrangement in ’75 would have been a sure-fire number one. (“Heat Wave” did just fine, reaching #5, but, for all the album sales and steady selling singles, she never quite recaptured the chart momentum “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” had given her.)
I’ll always think it was a mistake, then.
But lately I’ve been revising my opinion on whether it was her worst.
Because, in purely aesthetic terms, not releasing a live album has it beat all hollow.
Though she could sometimes be a touch stiff and uncomfortable in the spotlight and wasn’t always visually compelling, she was generally looser and freer vocally on stage than in the studio.
Sometimes she even took chances.
I was taken enough with her live concert from Los Angeles in 1975 to make it the first thing I’ve ever downloaded for repeat audio consumption (there’s no video available and it makes it easier to hear just how good she could be).
But there’s nothing in that concert, or any of several others available (all excellent to one degree or another) that matches what she did here, making Dolly Parton and Warren Zevon stronger for each other’s company. It’s a measure of her vision and, believe it or not, not something just anybody could pull off, then or now, even if they thought of it:
And anybody who thinks Ronstadt wasn’t some sort of genius should check out her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, available en toto on YouTube, where, with her own voice stilled by Parkinson’s, a dream lineup of Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks were repeatedly overwhelmed by arrangements she once made sound as easy as breathing.
Somebody, please do a live box….or at very least a live single, on this woman. (And if she’s the one resisting, due to her well known obsessive perfectionism, somebody please talk her into it!)
Of the select group of singers who have been known to keep me up all night (you know, get me thinking I’ll just listen to an album or two round about midnight and still be on the player when the sun comes up, which is, believe me, the only way I ever get to see the dawn), only two have kept me up trying to figure them out.
That’s a very different quality than loving someone’s voice, though of course that has to be the foundation. I’m not gonna spend all night with somebody I merely like a lot. All three of my friends can tell you….I’m just not that kind of guy!
Anyway, one of those singers is surprise, surprise, Elvis Presley and over the years I’ve at least come to some sort of conclusions about his place in the Cosmos, some of which I’ve shared on this blog.
Somewhere along the way, I flat gave up on Tanya Tucker.
I even stopped listening to her all night (though admittedly this has something to do with how little of her best music is available on CD and the mysterious curse on my string of den-ready record players). I never forgot mind you. Never forgot how good she is, or how strange she is. And, before I stopped listening all night, I had long since dismissed any notion that she was merely eccentric, after the manner of Prince or Dr. John or Frank Zappa, not only because that style of studied accentuation of a persona never much appealed to me but because it just didn’t suit her at all.
She was great enough to be as great as anybody and strange enough to take all kinds of purely musical risks, not a few of which left her flat on whatever a singer falls on when they slip on the proverbial existential banana peel.
Also great enough and strange enough to find that little space the ordinary genius doesn’t find.
In other words, a lot like Elvis (who, yet again being uncannily-astute-even-if-he-was-just-being-polite-too, once called her the female version of himself).
On record this quality might have showed itself as subtly as the way she dug in at the very end of an otherwise note-for-note copy of Linda Ronstadt’s by then standard arrangement of “When Will I Be Loved” and not only cut away the difference between her very good voice and Ronstadt’s spectacular one but actually upped the ante.
Or it might have showed itself as completely devoid of subtlety as the in-your-face way she called up the harsh, pitiless desperation in John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which a singer as fine as Bonnie Raitt had essentially treated as a folk song about an old person we ought to all feel sorry for and which even Prine had sung from the outside looking in.
It might have even come from as far out as the absolutely natural way she leaned on the key lines in this…
…which would have been a joke–or a folk song about a young person we ought to feel sorry for–coming from anybody else who ever lived. Coming from her (a superstar prodigy who hadn’t lived in “the real world” from the age of thirteen and hadn’t exactly lived a normal existence for a long time before that) it cut straight under the scar tissue covering the soul of every wild child you ever tried to look down on because you could take one look and know she was going to wind up in a Tanya Tucker song some day.
I don’t know. Seemed like worth staying up all night for to me, trying to get to the bottom of all that.
But, as I say, at some point I let it go.
I still listen, of course, but I never got a handle on her.
And I never will.
Last night I was running around YouTube, trying to piece together some sort of theme relating to why all my favorite living country singers are women just a few years older than me: Jeannie Kendall (b. 1954), Pam Tillis (b. 1957), Patty Loveless (b. 1957). And, of course, I was going to put Tanya (b. 1958) in there somewhere.
Then I ran across something that stopped me cold because it was the old, weird Tanya again, smoking up an Orlando club some-time in the eighties. I’d seen some of the footage from the concert before (there’s a version of “San Antonio Stroll” from the same concert which I’ve always been fond of that beats Miley Cyrus’ latest career moves by thirty years and every other kind of way).
I might have even seen this before.
But I never really heard it.
Maybe I had the not-quite-there version from her 1982 live album, (so familiar from those long ago all night sessions, which were by no means limited to what I liked because with Tanya half the time I didn’t even know what I liked), too firmly lodged in my ear.
Maybe YouTube isn’t the best venue for critical reassessment. Maybe the fact that she used Joan Baez’s folk-song lyrics instead of the Band’s hard-scrabble history lessons (“so much cavalry” for “Stoneman’s cavalry,” “I took the train” for “By May the tenth” and so forth) was calling up the rock snob in me.
Maybe no man could be expected to pay strict attention to the way any woman is singing when she’s getting away with an outfit that wouldn’t sell ice-to-an-Eskimo on anybody else the way it does on her.
For whatever reason, I probably listened before, but I definitely didn’t hear.
I heard it this time.
I very especially heard the way she finally put the rebel yell back in the song.
I heard what Levon Helm deliberately suppressed (he wasn’t in a position to let any Yankees think he was talking about them…not in 1969 with a review in Rolling Stone pending that might make the difference in whether he died rich as a rock star or poor as Virgil Caine) and what Joan Baez (a fair candidate for the Yankeeest Yankee in Yankeedom) couldn’t have conjured even if she had somehow imagined its existence.
In other words, the girl who had sung the New South anthem, “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again” (oh, but not the way we thought it would back then) and the neo-Confederate anthem “I Still Sing the Old Songs” (where the south that the singer wants to see rise again is precisely the one “we” thought about back then) with equal spine-tingling conviction, had come to a place where a setting that was half Vegas-warm-up and half barn-dance-stomp seemed like as good a chance as any to assume the position that Dixie never got drove down at all and to hell with you if you think it did.
Believe me when I say that it’s a rare white Southerner, however enlightened, who doesn’t get this, just as it’s a much rarer white Southerner than you might think who isn’t secretly glad the Yankees won.
And lest you think it’s even that simple, bear in mind that, if you flip around YouTube a little longer, you’re likely to run across this next video, which I confess I had all but forgotten about and which sprang from the Rhythm, Country and Blues project in the nineties.
That was one of Nashville’s periodic attempts to pretend the hard, segregated line its generations of suits (with admittedly some collaboration from artists and audience, though that’s complicated, too) started taking almost ninety years ago doesn’t really exist.
Little Richard, one of the artists the particular line drawn in the late fifties had been especially designed to exclude (a line so rigid it left Elvis and Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers on the far side of it, kicked to the curb so to speak, even though they were Southern whites recording in Nashville with the same producers and musicians everybody else used and were, basically, the biggest pop stars in the world), was finally to be invited inside the tent.
And if you didn’t want that to be fake, or awkward, or embarrassing in either the musical or political sense, there was exactly one Nashville hit-maker you could call.
Gee, who do you think that was?
The female Elvis maybe?
More especially if you hoped to sell ice-to-Eskimos live on television with a thoroughly bemused let’s-all-try-to-get-through-this-now Vince Gill introduction…
“Psycho” Elvis Costello (1979)…too close to actually being inside the mind of a psychopath. Costello made many great sides before this, only a handful since. Coincidence? Probably not. (No link available that I could find.)
“I Miss You” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) (1972)…too close to being in somebody else’s life where I don’t belong, like overhearing a friend’s conversation and knowing that, for better or worse, you’ll never feel the same about them again.
“I Feel Like Going Home” (Charlie Rich–Acoustic Version) (1973)…too close to the bone of Calvinist fatalism for anyone who believes in the resurrection to come away unscarred.
“Powerderfinger” Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1979)…too close to the deepest nightmares of a culture that has always prized violence a little too highly.
“Six White Horses” Waylon Jennings (1969)…too constant a reminder that Viet Nam is a wound that has never healed and never will.
“Angel From Montgomery” Tanya Tucker (1977)…too keen a reminder of certain older women I knew in youth who had nothing left, including hope, and, therefore–unlike the fine versions by composer John Prine and all-timer Bonnie Raitt–too much like a black hole in the sun. (No link to the studio version. There’s a terrific live version here, but I don’t find it scarifying.)
“They started their set with Pat Benetar, Linda Ronstadt, Journey, .38 Special, Bonnie Raitt…[The singer] was incredible. She came out with this red spandex outfit and Joan Jett kind of hair and I was blown away by the talent in this little hole-in-the-wall bar.”
Music Exec John Alexander recounting a visit to a Carolina bar in the early eighties. The singer was future country star Patty Loveless, who turned out to be the finest American popular singer since Al Green and has always credited her years as a rock singer for forming a large part of her “traditional” style…I’ll have more to say about all this in the next week or so, but it’s never too early to post a Patty Loveless video or two! (Source: Country Weekly…thanks to the great PattyLoveless.net website for uncovering this little item.)