This is an especially strong class. I was a surprised that Johnny Gimble wasn’t in long ago…but then the Country hall does have strict guidelines and standards. Ricky Skaggs made a joke at his induction about not having to explain to people anymore why he wasn’t in the hall. And I’m strong for Dottie West any day of any year. A class all country music fans can take to heart.
One of the architects of Western Swing…
The savior (almost single-handed) of bluegrass…
And the woman who survived horrific child abuse (including sexual abuse) to become one of the great voices of her generation, racking up dozens of hits on her own across two decades (more than a few of which she wrote), plus many more with her three Hall of Fame duet partners, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Kenny Rogers. She was also the first female country singer to win a Grammy.
She even wrote jingles. Then made hits from them….
They broke the mold on these three. The Hall did itself proud this time around.
So I go on the road, I drive, I get to listen close…Six hours to the airport (where I fly nonstop to North Dakota so I still save a few hours in the end by avoiding layovers).
The plane leaves at 7:00 a.m. so I leave the house before midnight.
On the way down, I listen to The Basement Tapes (which I’ve just got cranking when the local constabulary pulls me to tell me my tag light’s out, thank you very much!), Timi Yuro’s Complete Liberty Singles (worthy of its own post…how do we so easily forget Timi Yuro?), The Trouble With the Truth (one of several Patty Loveless albums I’m always convinced is her very best whenever I’m listening to it) and close with the real killer, Don Gibson’s A Legend in My Time (a superbly chosen Bear Family disc from his classic period), which I never have time to really focus on when I’m at home.
Twelve days later, I return in the rain. It’s one of those Florida rains which I know is not worth waiting out (for one thing, I’ll be asleep in the airport by then…it’s been a lo-n-n-n-n-g-g-g twelve days). So I hike to my car in the rain (it’s one of those ariports where, if you’ve parked a car, it’s a hike), get my shirt soaking wet, decide I might as well wait until I stop for gas to change it (by which time it will be dry enough not to bother….no matter how often I fly from this airport, I always forget how far it is to a gas station…or food!). Don Gibson is still in the CD player, so I listen again….
…and it’s still awe-inspiring. There’s nothing quite like hearing an hour’s worth of Don Gibson while you’re driving in a welcome-back-to-Florida rain.
And then, to tell the truth, I pull Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now for no better reason than because it’s sitting on top of the stack.
I only threw it in the box because I’ve had my new CD version sitting around the house for months, meaning to give it the listen I never quite gave it when I bought it cheap and used on vinyl twenty years back.That’s another thing driving trips are good for–catching up on stuff you don’t have proper time for when your life is gathered around you at home, where dishes need to be washed, the blog needs keeping up, the paycheck has to be earned, the book wants a polish.
Starts off fine. I have the usual reaction I have when I haven’t listened to Van in a while. He’s great, but nobody could be as great as Van is when I’m only listening in my mind, so I’m soon wondering if he’s merely great, and maybe not, you know, transcendent.
That’ gets me all the way to this…the ninth track on the first disc…
…and about halfway through it, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I start thinking, no, it’s not possible to overestimate Van Morrison, even when he’s just being the crowd-pleaser his legend suggests he could never just be.
Of course, it could be that this is just the first song I know well enough to sing along–which means I can start edging towards ecstasy, especially if I’m driving along in the the still steady drizzling welcome-back-to-Florida rain.
Then he switches to Muddy Waters…
…and gets inside him, sneaky little bastard. Muddy Waters as lounge music that’s deeper and fleeter than the original and which, since I haven’t quite comprehended whether this first disc is supposed the be the entire original album (it’s not), may be closing the original concept down. It feels like it could do that. Driving along in the rain, it feels like it could close down the World…or the State of Florida at least.
But it’s just a set up. I’ve got the second disc cued up and, though I can’t tell if it’s bonus material or not (it isn’t), it doesn’t matter, because he jumps straight into Sam Cooke, who knew a thing or two about Vegas-ing the Blues himself. No more than Van, certainly…
…but maybe no less. Either way, Van’s off into the mystic so to speak, because he jumps from there to “St. Dominic’s Preview,” which it takes me a while to recognize, by which time my mind has split in two and I’m doing some sort of mental dissertation on White Boys diving into the Blues and hearing snatches of Mick Jagger’s negotiations with Satan, circa 1974, about the time Satan started cashing Mick’s checks and draining his bank account and while most of the conversation drifted by, what with the rain and the Yes-Sir-Van-is-All-That singing going on, it did keep my mind running in Fake Stereo for fifteen minutes or so while Van got all the way to end of his personal Magnum Opus, “Listen to the Lion” which can never be added to on stage because he took the recorded version as far as anything can be taken.
And I figured that was probably that.
The rain had stopped by then. The sun was coming out, and Van went straight back into his crowd-pleasingist, crowd-pleasing mode, and we all know what that means….Time for a little THEM…
Starting with this…
which makes me wonder if he’s trying to steal it back from Lulu…
…who stole it from him in the Them days (she got it out first, they had the big hit, and somewhere deep down inside I think, listening to It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van knows she found something to be afraid of in the night he was busy owning it…and still trying to own all those years later).
After which, of course, it’s on to the one he’ll never get away from…and which no one will ever beat him on…or find anything in that he didn’t find the first time…
And you’d think this would bring my poor ragged mind back to a single track, especially since I’m clapping, driving and singing at the same time.
Hey, don’t worry, no more rain, no problem. I’m VERY experienced at this.
But while I’m doing that, I also start conducting an (imaginary–I ain’t crazy you know) interview with Jimmy Page, where I ask if he minds focusing on his early session-man days (among which a number of Them tracks, and Lulu’s version of “Here Comes the Night” are rumored to be highlights…or maybe it isn’t rumored anymore and it’s either been confirmed or debunked by now, but in my mind I’m assuming young James did indeed play on some Them sessions and Lulu sessions, and he doesn’t seem to want to shatter any illusions).
But, instead of asking him about Van Morrison and Them, or even Lulu, I find myself asking if this was as much fun as it sounds like…
….and his imaginary face lights up for the first time, loses it’s professional cool. “Tried to throw her off with that discordant bit in the bridge,” he says. “Silly me…Gave me some ideas for later though.”
I might have pursued the conversation further…I WOULD have pursued it further. Nothing could have kept me from it.
Except maybe this.
The sun was shining bright by then. I was somewhere near Ocala. Still three hours from home, but the past is behind me and Van Morrison is speaking in tongues.
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 HeartbreakersEcho (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 OrlonsBest 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.
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 ChesnuttThe 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 PlattersThe 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.
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 YoakumGuitars, 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.
1) Martha & the VandellasLive 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.
I don’t have the deep knowledge to do justice to either man so I’ll keep my part brief.
Gary S. Paxton
Gary S. Paxton kept himself on the vital margins of Rock and Roll America throughout its founding and impetuous youth. He started out normal enough, as half of Skip & Flip (“It Was I,” “Cherry Pie”…Skip was Skip Battin, who went on the play with a late edition of the Byrds).
Then he took a left turn: lead voice on the Hollywood Argyles “Alley Oop,” which he also produced, along with Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash”–in other words about as hard a left turn as the times allowed.
Then he just kept turning. First to a role as all around L.A. record man–producer, writer, engineer, label owner, whatever–with his fingerprints here, there and everywhere behind the scenes. Then, in the mid-sixties, to the town’s burgeoning country-rock scene, where he had the commitment and contacts to play in Gram Parsons’ league. Not bad for a guy who was producing Tommy Roe and the Association. But, despite starting Bakersfield International and giving the Gosdin Brothers a start, he never managed to make his particular genius achieve lift-off in the new context.
Not to fear. His commitment was real enough, more than a phase. From there he went on to Nashville, where he wrote this late signature tune for the great Don Gibson which is a particular favorite of mine:
Around the same time, God came calling, and Gary had consumed enough who-hit-John to be in a mood to listen. Despite keeping a toe in the country world, he spent the rest of his life devoted primarily to gospel, where he made heads spin from left (“Will There Be Hippies in Heaven”) to right (“The Big A = The Big M”…approach with caution) and, in a sense went back to working the road he had started down with a string of teenage bands when rock and roll was still a gleam in Chuck Berry’s eye.
Along the way there were Grammy’s, three bullets from a hit man (the early eighties, when survival was the name of the game), time in Branson and, earlier this month, the meeting with his maker. He wore a thousand faces when he was here. What they all had in common was a smile.
He did for the second half of the American Century what Norman Rockwell did for the first half–defined some elemental image of us as we wanted to see ourselves. Until I started hunting around for images on the news of his death, I had no idea how much he had shaped the visual imagination of fifty million childhoods. I’ll let a smattering of what I found tell the story.
Yup. That’s my autobiography. Yours, too, probably.
Jack’s probably on the River Styx tonight. But, wherever he is, I bet somebody’s offering him a commission.
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.
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.
Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):
My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)
My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)
My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)
My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)
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.)
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:
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…
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.
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.
I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”
The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).
Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..
But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.
For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.
No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).
With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.
I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.
Not even close.
I only made it to six.
Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.
And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.
Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.
I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).
So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.
So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.
One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.
Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.
The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.
It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.
So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.
I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.
Which brings me to my last point:
Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.
The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).
Then they were replaced by pod people.
But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.
In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).
The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).
These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.
The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!
I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.
But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).
Make of that what you will.
In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).
As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!
(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).
Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):
1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)
[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]
The Beach Boys:
1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1967: Wild Honey*
and a fantastic live version:
1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider
The Rolling Stones:
1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*
1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]
(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about ballads lately. By “a lot” I guess I mean, even more than usual.
The more than usual bit kicked in around a week or so ago, when I listened to a couple of “Ballads” comps from Hip-O Select’s series of such. Hearing their James Brown collection for the first time–and being blown away by it, by the fact that this was about the tenth best thing we think of when we think of James Brown and that it’s both mind-blowing and past any easy exegesis–led me to the other disc I have from the series, which is a similarly staggering set from Brenda Lee.
And all of that got me to thinking–or remembering–that the real reason rock and roll took over the world for thirty-plus years wasn’t just because the fast and loud singers got better (as opposed to just faster and louder, which is what the common narrative would have us believe) but because the ballad singers got better, too.
I know, I know. Me on my high horse again, contending that Tony Williams and Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison went places even Doris Day and Nat “King” Cole (my picks for the greatest pre-rock balladeers) simply couldn’t go. Once more admitting I’d rather listen to Clyde McPhatter than Billie Holiday (great as she is) or Elvis in full-on strings-and-horns mode over Sinatra being eminently tasteful (or enervated, depending on your perspective).
What can I say? Guilty as charged.
But this recent bout of contemplatin’ got me wondering just how deep the divide really runs. I mean, how many rock and roll balladeers would I have to list before I got to a pop singer (we’ll leave country and gospel out of this for now–though I’ll say they are a lot closer to the spirit of rock and roll than Tin Pan Alley and some heavy Don Gibson time these past few weeks has certainly brought home just how much closer)?
I decided it would run pretty deep. I didn’t make a list or anything, but–given the modern definition of “ballad,” which is pretty much anything that tries to pack an emotional wallop into a slow tempo–I’m guessing I might get to thirty or forty before I even started considering any Pop singers besides Doris and Nat, and maybe fifty or more before I actually put another one in place.
Even after all that, it turned out I wasn’t quite through, because yesterday, on the daily run to the grocery store (hey, it gets me out of the house, which, believe me, I need)–I turned to an actual music station for the first time in about a month and ran into the Rolling Stones’ doing “Angie” (#1 in 1973–their last except for the disco-ish “Miss You” in 1978) backed up by Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” (his sole #1, from 1972).
It happens I wasn’t really thinking of Mick Jagger or Mr. Young for my “top balladeer” list. And you have to use that stretcher of a definition I cited above to really call these ballads. But they do demonstrate the depth of field that was operating at rock’s high tide.
As it also happens, I have some emotional ties to both.
“Heart of Gold,” always brings back rides to baseball practice in the spring of ’72. I was eleven. My dad worked in the afternoons. My mom didn’t drive. The baseball fields weren’t anywhere near my school. Nobody on the team lived near me. That meant I was riding with my brother-in-law, who would pick me up on his way from Titusville to Merritt Island every afternoon and deposit me at the practice fields about twenty minutes late, where I would get dirty looks from all the coaches and most of my fellow players even though everybody knew I didn’t have a choice. Male bonding!
That was the year I almost quit baseball–five years before it quit me. Mixed memories to say the least and I can understand why my brother-in-law doesn’t remember it. Sometimes I’d like to forget itmyself. But “Heart of Gold” played on the local Top 40 station every day that spring at the same time on the late rides into practice and I seldom encounter it without thinking of those times and smiling a little over how long it took me to become a Neil Young fan!
“Angie” was sort of wrapped up in male bonding, too. Or maybe I should call it male anti-bonding. It was the first Rolling Stones’ single I bought (from one of those oldies’ bins I had started to haunt, some time in the late seventies) and one of the first songs I ever had to “defend” in one of those snark-fests young males get into when they are calling each other’s tastes into serious question.
The extent of my defense was not exactly the stuff high school legends are made of. Following a rather lengthy rant from the other guys about how there was this really great, slow, acoustic guitar playing and then Mick had to start whining and make everybody want to puke, I think my response basically amounted to “Hey, I like it. Sounds good to me.” That and a little smirk that was designed to suggest I just might be onto something. End of discussion!
I learned early. The more mysterious the better.
So, whenever I heard “Angie” through the years–and I’m pretty sure, given the proximity of their release dates, that it and “Heart of Gold” have been chasing each other around quite a bit over these four decades–I mostly thought about the weirdness of me sticking up for a record by the Stones (about whom I have always maintained a certain ambivalence) against rabid Stones lovers who happened to hate the first Stones’ record I loved.
Then, on September 11, 2002–the first anniversary of you know what, when it was already evident that “you know what” was not going to be taken seriously and that, except for the soldiers we asked to get shot and blown up for the privilege of accepting our “thanks,” we really were all going to go shopping and let it go at that–I was riding around, listening to the radio, and heard those acoustic guitar chords my long-ago debate club buddies had praised, not because they liked beautiful acoustic guitar lines (trust me, they didn’t) but because whatever Keith did was cool (even if it was just duet-ing with Mick Taylor) crawling through my speakers.
The song changed for me in that instant.
Listening to Mick sing it that day didn’t change it back.
It just cemented the change in place. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, just what/who the song was about. I’ve read that “Angie” was supposed to be Marianne Faithful, Angie Harmon, Keith’s daughter and none of the above.
Take your pick.
As for me: From September 11, 2002, to now it’s always been about the sound of goodbye and, whatever it was supposed to “mean,” I’ve also developed a sneaking suspicion that the what/who Mick Jagger was really saying goodbye to was himself.
There has certainly never been any recorded evidence on this side of the divide that the man who was responsible for so much transcendent music that had been recorded in the previous decade still exists.