About this time a year ago, I found out I was going to have to replace my roof and my hardwood floors by the end of the year in order to keep my house insurable. These things got done, at the expense of reordering my life for months on end. And I’m just now returning to something like “normal” status, meaning, among other things, that my record player is fully operational again.
So here in the last week or two I’ve been pulling vinyl like mad, acquainting and re-acquainting myself as it were.
And sometime Saturday in the very early a.m., I was sure I had found the “new” acquaintance of the week/month/year when I discovered Flatt–on an old double-LP titled Bean Blossom (a live recording from Indiana’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in 1973 which I’ve had for years but have rarely played and never really paid strict attention to before)–turning “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” aka “The Theme From the Beverly Hillbillies” into a laconic, world-weary, working man’s blues.
Flatt’s studio version was already far dryer and a good deal more cautionary than the chipper version that resides in the national subconcious via endless re-runs, but here, he made lines like “poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,” sound like they were being sung from the bottom of a mine.
So that had to be it, right? The new thing most likely to expand my consciousness here in the latter stages of my recovery phase?
Really, I should know better.
No matter how tired I get, I should never forget that rock and roll is bottomless.
Not twenty-four hours later, I’m in my car listening to the final album in a stark-raving incredible five album set from the Isley Brothers which, in amongst the hardcore funk-rock and straight soul, features lots and lots of covers of White America’s AM Gold playlist circa the early seventies, nearly every one of which they transformed.
Seriously: “Ohio” to “Summer Breeze” to “Listen to the Music” to “Love the One You’re With” to “Fire and Rain.” Good records, great records, trash records. It would be easy to think it was just catch-as-catch-can, trying to keep up with the era’s insane recording schedules–easy except Ronnie Isley kept finding ways to make everything personal.
“Just yesterday morning,” he sings “they let me know you were gone.” And suddenly it hurts. There’s no distance, no comfort, no displacement, no opacity, no self-pity, just real fear and real transcendence. As if somebody or something is really and truly gone.
Same with “four dead in O-hi-o.” Same with “There’s a rose in the fisted glove.”
And so on and so forth.
But even with all that coming at me during my drive times this week, I wasn’t any way prepared for Ronnie to take on Jonathan Edwards’ consummately fey (and consummately catchy) “Sunshine,” which, I confess, I never knew meant anything at all after hearing Edwards sing it a few hundred times on the oldies’ stations of yesteryear (most often with me shouting right along, incidentally).
Here, it starts out sounding like a man who is standing next to Lester Flatt in that imaginary mine, shouting up–“Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancing”–and then follows along as he proceeds to lift himself up inch-by-inch until he can just about see the light.
But don’t take my word for it…go have a listen–as “He’s got cards he ain’t showing,” takes on new meaning in the mouth of a black man negotiating the fall-out of post Civil Rights America as the New Jim Crow began to meet the Old Jim Crow and he helps you ponder the paths not taken–bear in mind Ronnie’s own maxim that rock and roll was the only music that let everything in: