TWITTER, TWITTER (Segue of the Day: 9/25/18)

Today, Bill Cosby was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for sexual assault.

Really, it was a non-event, but I found two interesting takes on Twitter.

First, Terry Teachout:

In the midst of all the other roiling chaos, it’s worth remembering—and strangely easy to forget—that what happened to Bill Cosby today will be remembered as a turning point in American social and cultural history.

Terry is a reliable indicator of conventional wisdom among what’s now called Never Trump Conservatism. He hails from a small town in Missouri and has spent most of his adult life inside the beltway, working for periodicals like National Review and the Wall Street Journal. He’s pretty darn sure Bill Cosby is guilty because, like most white people from small town America, he thinks this here darn system works pretty well and wasn’t the fellow convicted?

Here’s Curtis Scoon (an actual black man, who is not from small town America):

Now that Cosby is convicted for a crime he settled out of court for a decade ago every woman he’s ever bedded or attempted to bed outside of his marriage can now pursue civil lawsuits. Clearly this case was all about “justice.” What else could’ve been the motivation?

Followed soon thereafter by:

I have a question for the black ACTORivist/feminist types on twitter. You keep emphasizing the conviction of Bill Cosby as PROOF of his guilt, so why doesn’t Assata Shakur’s conviction prove hers’? Neither does Mumia’s conviction. George Zimmerman’s acquittal gets tossed as well.

I follow Teachout because he’s utterly predictable. That’s why I follow nearly everyone I follow–to tap into what the position is on any given issue from a given perspective. By following enough predictable people representing enough predictable positions, I’m able to discern what almost everyone is thinking because few people ever take any position that isn’t predictable based on even one previous opinion they’ve held and shared.

That’s the world we live in.

Maybe it was ever thus, but, if so, it seems Social Media has hardened the parameters of convention.

I follow Scoon because he’s the only person I know of, on-line, who isn’t predictable. And because he asks questions that have uncomfortable answers (like because it doesn’t jibe with MY narrative, that’s why!) which cannot be articulated by those being asked. No one likes to risk blowing their own mind.

I like to think he’s a kindred spirit in that respect. For instance, if I was on Twitter for some purpose other than following others, I’d probably Tweet something like:

Between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, I have no idea who is telling the Truth. Neither do you. No matter how much you think he/she reminds you of someone you knew in high school.

I’m betting that wouldn’t get me many followers!

How about it Gene? What do you say?



I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest part about blogging (for me at least) is deciding what to write about. I always have a few longing posts incubating. Some sit for months or even years before the mood to polish them off strikes.

But mostly, ideas come and go. Several times a day. Sometimes more. The hardest part is avoiding politics. I know I write about them here and there, especially the Age of Trump, but it’s not what I want this blog to be about. If I ever decide to go heavy on it, I’ll start another blog–probably called No Comfort here. That should put me at the top of the charts!

This week been more interesting than most, because I’ve become self-conscious about the process. Here I sit wondering whether I should write next about Cyndi Lauper (or just She’s So Unusual, or maybe Twelve Deadly Cyns, or just “Money Changes Everything,”) except I really need to get back to John Ford or Elvis and I’ve got that Handy Ten on Golden Age Westerns to finish off plus my favorite Various Artists box set (Philly Soul) and six or seven other topics to consider, when all of a sudden, just this morning (early, before the sun came up), I’m listening to the Byrds and thinking This, this is what I should be writing about, and then Vivien Leigh pops into my head and I ask myself how it’s possible I’ve been writing this blog for six-and-a-half years without ever attempting to do her justice (given that no one else has managed it, should’t I at least try)?

And, you know, the chances are at least fifty-fifty, the next thing I write about won’t be any of those things.

It probably won’t even be about the paradigm shift I see happening in the two major political parties which will either lead to a reversal of voting bases (like 1980) or priorities (like 1932) or the elimination of one or the other to be replaced by something new (like 1860).

It probably won’t even be my response to Terry Teachout’s long interview about the Band, where he opined, among other things, that their first two albums were the only “adult” music being made at the time (1968-70) in what I like to call Rock and Roll America.

Boy, will I have something to say about that some day….unless, by chance, all the “some days” become consumed by all those other things I’m sure I’ll have something say about…

I, TOO, WANT TO RUN….BUT THERE’S STILL NOWHERE TO GO (Memory Lane: 1998, 1966–1974)

Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish-American baseball star. Also subject of the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, whereby hangs a tale, of identity…and other things.

I found this (which I strongly recommend to all my readers) linked to a Terry Teachout re-tweet.

The original tweet read, in part: “I have had two Jewish friends in the last week tell me that their families have moved money out of the UK ‘just in case we have to leave’.”

I imagine the feeling in the rest of “civilized” Europe is, if anything, more widespread.

Should this general unease turn to panic (rational or irrational), Jews will be down to, at most, a few destinations: Israel, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and here.

The tweet, and Mr. Jacobson’s column, brought to mind a memory.

About twenty years ago, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ baseball star of the 1930s and 40s (despite missing three years serving in WWII, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times apiece), was the subject of a good documentary which made the rounds of the art-house circuit.

There was a theater in Tallahassee (now long gone, alas) which showed offbeat movies, so I had a chance to see it on the big screen. The nominal narrative thread was Greenberg’s 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (60, set in 1927–Greenberg’s attempt, which came up two short, perhaps because umpires wishing, for especially unsavory reasons, to preserve Ruth’s record, squeezed the strike zone on him in the season’s final weeks, was the last real run at it until Roger Maris broke the record in 1961).

But the movie’s real reason for being was to showcase Greenberg’s struggles–and triumphs–as the first great Jewish-American baseball star.

I saw it with a close friend. When we were walking out, she asked if I had ever heard of Hank Greenberg before (she hadn’t). I had been a baseball stat freak in my youth so, yes, I had heard of him.

“I never knew he was Jewish, though,” I added.

“Seriously?” she said. “Greenberg?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.”

It’s true. I wasn’t.

She still found my ignorance a little hard to believe, so, for proof, I gave her another, better, example.

My first eight years of public school, in any class where seats were assigned alphabetically (which was most of them), I was always seated next to a girl whose last name was Roth. She was quiet, soft-spoken, studious, got exceptional grades. Her best friends were other girls–not always as soft-spoken–who also got exceptional grades. But even among them, she was counted elite. Not just by girls. The same boys (who also got exceptional grades–their fathers were doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers) who were awed by my ability to recite the batting and home run champions for every year the National and American Leagues had been in existence, were even more in awe of her–every single day.

I moved after the eighth grade and it was only years later, after I saw the Godfather movies (one of which featured a Jewish gangster named Hyman Roth) and read a novel called Goodbye, Columbus, a plainly autobiographical story by an author named Philip Roth, that I realized it was just possible the girl I sat next to all those years was also Jewish.

To this day, I don’t know it for sure. It just seems a pretty safe assumption.

Had I known it then, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.

Except to note it as an interesting anecdote about my childhood (that I probably sat next to a Jewish girl in school without having any clue she was Jewish), I don’t think anything about it now.

Like I told my friend: I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.

Assuming she was Jewish, though, my knowing it would have made one possible difference.

It would have meant that, if she was ever attacked or insulted for her Jewishness (or any other quality that left her in a lonely minority), it would have been my duty to come to her defense.

Whether I would have had the courage to do so–or the wit or strength to do so effectively–there is no way of knowing. Of all our motley public school crew, I may have been the only person less likely than she was to speak without being spoken to, to break my own public persona and assert myself in a circumstance where all of us–not just the studious ones–were expected to be quiet.

Had I acted according to my conscience, it would have been a supreme act of the will.

Instinct and my nature would have played no part.

My instinct–then as now–was to stay in the shadows, and observe.

As it happens, it never came to that. If the girl I sat next to in the deep South of the 1960s and 70s was ever made uncomfortable for having a Jewish name–and I don’t say she wasn’t–I wasn’t aware of it.

But if it had come to pass that she was insulted for being Jewish, and I knew it and failed to defend her, I would have been both keenly aware of my failure and ashamed of it. I would have known I needed to ask forgiveness for the sin of forgoing my faith in a testing hour.

I was raised to pay no attention to people’s names. and I was raised to ask, of my own volition, without prompting by ritual, for forgiveness of my sins–all sins, conscious (as this would have been) and unconscious–from the God of my faith.

And to seek to redress the consequences of those sins where possible. That would have included apologizing to Miss Roth and making my future willingness to stand by her side known to any possible tormentors.

Else living with immense guilt and a moral assurance that I was a coward.

It was a hard school, my faith.

It still is.

These days, it is most often called Evangelical Christianity. How it came to be called that in common parlance (when we never used the term ourselves in any church I attended growing up), and then came to be mingled with, and deliberately mistaken for, any number of other things–including, most ridiculously, the Shadow Force that runs the Republican party–is a subject for another day.

I will only say for now that, having known literally thousands of my fellow “evangelicals,” and having been made familiar with their carefully deliberated core beliefs in the most stringent intellectual and moral circumstances (among other things, my father attended a bible college when I was in high school–that was the reason we left the place where I had sat next to Miss Roth in school all those years), I have always found it amusing to note the tendency of the great thinkers of the age to mock us for our unwavering support of Israel one minute and accuse us of the rankest anti-Semitism the next.

That, too, is a story for another day.

Don’t worry. If I live long enough, I’ll get to all of it sooner or later.

These days, however, reading stories like Mr. Jacobsen’s, I find it all a bit less amusing, a bit more alarming.

Well aware as I am of my tribe’s actual sins–more aware than any without it, and most within it I assure you–I take cold comfort in knowing that, of all the tribes who might produce a person likely to spit on a Jew, in modern England or anywhere else, none is as unlikely as mine.

But, as we are all forced to contemplate the next run for the shadows–as Evangelicals themselves begin wondering, not without some justification, whether we’ll be left standing when the world is through with accusing us of being the secret cabal that runs everything and thirsts for the Apocalypse (supposed to be the real reason we support Israel, for instance)–I still haven’t forgotten my tribe’s most valuable lesson, one I’d have learned from no other that operated in my world, not even Miss Roth’s or Mr. Jacobson’s, concerned, as they must be, with their own interests and their own survival:

When you raise your children in the way they should go, teach them to pay no attention to people’s names.

And, like those who are not afforded this luxury, be ready to depart for some other land–or the next life–at a moment’s notice.

JIVE PRINCE (Walter Becker, R.I.P.)

(For my more expansive thoughts on Steely Dan, you can go here.)

Steely Dan were rock’s consummate pedants, the kind the music was liable to produce if it stayed around long enough–which, rock and roll being what it was, and Rock and Roll America being what it was–meant too good to be ignored.

In the world that came spinning out of the 50’s revolution (the real revolution college bound white boys were bound to take credit for sooner or later, even if they had to draft working class Brits for front men–at a certain point, anyone would do, as long as they weren’t blacks or hillbillies, it was only a fluke that the Beatles really were geniuses), even the pedants were better than anyone had a right to expect.

I never shared the thrill so many others bought when Walter Becker and his partner, Donald Fagen, started releasing their pointillist masterworks in the seventies. I loved a few of their records (the musical highlights of which–David Palmer’s haunted vocal on “Dirty Work,” Elliot Randall’s cascading guitar line on “Reelin’ in the Years,” Skunk Baxter’s stinging/healing licks on “Change of the Guard” and “Old School”–were provided by someone other than Becker and his partner, who soon turned exclusively to hired guns anyway), but, really, their entire essence was in their first album’s two lead cuts.

Not to say the essence didn’t have it’s merits–considerable even–but, despite all the accolades, the only thing that reached deeper than a mordant surface after the first album-and-a-half was a cover by the sort of group Steely Dan was meant to erase from history.

I can’t offer the kind of love Becker is getting elsewhere on the occasion of his passing (Terry Teachout called Becker and Fagen “the Stephen Sondheims of rock”…God love him, he meant it as a compliment).

But this is enough to stand for any man’s epitaph….


Terry Teachout (who can be followed on the “About Last Night” link in the blogroll) has a feature he calls Lookback, wherein he revisits posts of yesteryear. A day or so ago, he re-posted something from 2006 which can be found here.

If you follow the link inside the link you can read the whole piece from back when. Just FYI, the reader he is quoting is yours truly (which gives me a  feeling akin to something Steven Rubio–who can also be followed in the blogroll–has written about lately, wherein one goes looking for references or simply starts looking around….and runs into oneself).

Regarding Terry’s piece, I think any regular reader of this blog knows where I stand on the high/low/middlebrow thing. As in, I don’t think it means anything at all. It happens the song in question, Abba’s “SOS,” has always reached me. It reached me even in the days when I didn’t like much of anything else they did and it was probably the reason I kept coming back to them until quite a bit more actually sank in.

And it reaches me now. I like Terry’s picks for other not-so-guilty pleasures and really appreciate his thoughtful respons, but I’m not sure he got my main point (my fault, because I sort of danced around the subject).

What I really should have said was that I thought “SOS” was great and didn’t need even the slightest qualification or apology.

I still don’t.

And I swear on a stack of bibles I don’t care what Aggy’s wearing. No need to take my eye Lord. With me, it’s all about the music!


MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)


This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:


Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.


On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.


WHAT IS ART?…OH, THAT AGAIN (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Lesson #12)

Terry Teachout had a piece a couple of weeks back, basically lamenting the state of the Kennedy Center honors and the falling standards at the Library of America. The full piece is behind a firewall, but the part I’m getting ready to complain about is here.

So it’s the barbarians at the gate again. Well-l-l-l…

I’m for standards, too. But I think their maintenance is a lot trickier than Terry lets on here (at least in this part I have access to, which does seem to correlate with other things he’s written…I”ll leave aside the time he specifically complained about the Kennedy Center not putting in enough country singers, because I took it for granted he was just scoring ideological points).

I’m reading the Elmore Leonard volume for review now, so I’ll wait a while to say a word about the Library of America’s choices for inclusion.

As to the Kennedy Center:

Well, I love this:

And, I really love this:

But they aren’t better, or “higher” than this….because nothing is:

If honoring Sting, say, (or Tom Hanks, or Lily Tomlin, who’s worthy anyway) is the price for making sure the tent is big enough for Al Green, then so be it.


SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/13/13)–(So, Just What Are the Limitations of Popular Art Anyway?)

Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):

Now to the main point:

A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.

But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.

And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.


See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.

Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.

Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.

So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):

Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.

Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.

Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.

Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.

Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.

John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.

Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.

Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.

Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.

Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.

AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.

Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.

Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.

Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)

Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.

Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.

Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.

Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”

Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.

The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?

Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)

Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.

Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.

The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.

Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.

BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”

Count yourself lucky.


[NOTE: A little over a year into this little adventure this is, by a pretty substantial measure, the longest piece I’ve written for this blog. It was also, rather surprisingly, the most difficult to write. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Being a Patty Loveless fan–I mean a stone cold, dyed-in-the-wool Patty Loveless fan–has always been a bit of a surrealistic experience. It has always meant dealing with a very serious disconnect between truly believing, on the one hand, that she’s a whole lot more than somebody who has made a lot of good albums and won some big awards and realizing, on the other hand, that–even if some people might agree, this notion can still feel more than a bit like barking at the moon.

Yes, there has been perceptive writing (I’d point special attention to David Cantwell’s No Depression reviews which can be found at the magazine’s website; Holly Gleason’s fine liner notes to Sleepless Nights; Bill Friskics-Warren’s lengthy article “Down From the Mountain,” collected in No Depression‘s 2005 anniversary book; and the Laurence Leamer biographical piece from his Three Chords and the Truth referenced below, as well as the treasure trove of media references collected at Patty, by far the best of the websites devoted to her and a model, really, for any fan-site).

And she’s certainly been praised beyond the confines of media devoted specifically to country music, sometimes quite avidly and as far afield as the New York Times, where Terry Teachout once quite truthfully described her being “as passionate and compelling a singer as has ever set foot in Nashville.” Given the best of what Nashville has meant to our music history–and I’ll get to some of the less flattering aspects of what it has meant below–he might as well have said “Anywhere.”

So high praise indeed.

But there are still serious limits on what can be said about an artist within the confines of deadlines, word counts, journalistic objectivity and commerce-driven editorial policies and I don’t know of any artist in any medium–popular or otherwise–who defies those limits as thoroughly as Loveless. Nor do I know any artist of her stature who has received so little even of what the mainstream popular press can hope to offer: Let’s just say there have been no in-depth interviews for Rolling Stone!

So what this really is, is an attempt to understand–to speak from and to the heart in the manner that Loveless’ own music always has. To perhaps bring a new combination of personal and historical perspective to a career that seems to demand such. If music speaks to you more deeply than anything else–and voices speak even more deeply than instruments or orchestration, melodies or lyrics–then your favorite singers end up being the soundtrack of your life and a piece like this is as much by way of paying a debt as praising something I love in hopes that others might either recognize some piece of themselves in my experience (be it with Patty Loveless or someone else) or just have their level of interest piqued or renewed enough to want to think about signing up for this particular ride.

It’s not a debt I, or anyone, can really pay of course. But at least this once I can promise you it’s the very best I could do.]

“I don’t want the music that I’ve recorded….to be forgotten. I hope that I’m doing music that will be remembered, even 100 years from now.”

Patty Loveless (quoted in Montgomery News, 2010)

Patty Loveless “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights” (Live 1987 television performance of the first side of her first LP–also her first single)

Some time around the turn of the millennium I got a call at home from a telemarketing service. Some quality in the plaintive young female voice on the other end kept me from my usual misanthropic reflex to punch the button that severs contact and reverts a telephone to what I’ve always considered its most useful and elegant state–the pleasant hum of the dial tone.

The young woman was selling magazine subscriptions and she sounded so plainly and thoroughly dispirited–as if she could hardly make it through the spiel without apologizing for the excruciating uselessness and stupidity of it all–that I ended up actually taking out a subscription to something or other (with the idea I would cancel it at the earliest possible moment).

Once she had gotten over her obvious surprise that someone was actually buying the product, she asked if I could wait on the line while her boss verified my information.

I said I would and waited for her to put me on hold.

Instead, she broke the script and started talking to me, asking, among other things, where I was from. When I told her I lived in Florida, she asked if I had always lived there.

“Yeah, my whole life,” I said.

Then, in a voice that made her previous attitude sound like an especially rousing version of the Hallelujah Chorus, she said:

“Is there anything to do in Florida?”

After I got over my surprise, I found myself playing Chamber of Commerce advocate. Not what you might call a usual role for me.

I assured her that there was plenty to do in Florida. I think I even mentioned things like beaches (which I never “do” myself–nothing there but water you can’t drink and skin cancer as far as I can tell).

I played up the positive points, though. I would have told far worse lies if I could have made her believe in a brighter future. She had that kind of affect on me.

“I sure wish I was there,” she said. “I’m from West Virginia and there’s nothing to do here.”

“Well,” I said. “You sound pretty young. Maybe you’ll be able to leave some day. Get out and see the world.”

Young as she was, she answered in the pained, wistful voice of a thousand years’ experience teaching hard-earned wisdom to somebody who just fell off the turnip truck.

Nobody leaves West Virginia,” she said.

Then, with an air of settling a judgment.

“Not unless they join the military.”

*  *  *  *

There are a few reasons why I’ve had no trouble remembering this conversation in the years since.

One was the wave of sadness that came over me while it was happening–the knowledge that this moment of defeat–which might have been extremely temporary or just as extremely permanent–was all I would ever know of that young woman.

It was the worst I’ve ever felt for someone I didn’t know personally and that alone might have kept the memory coming back from time to time.

But as it happened….there were reminders….

Not long after, the two most famous faces of the “WMD” phase of the Iraq War–Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England–made their various ways into the national consciousness. A couple of very young women who turned out to have at least one rather striking thing in common: they were both from West Virginia.

I guess you could say they joined the military.


Some time in this past year, I got around to watching Winter’s Bone (set in the Appalachia-gone-west of the Ozarks), and I’m sure that long ago conversation is the reason I found the army recruiting scene the most painful and hopeless moment in a movie that pretty much runs on pain and hopelessness.


Then there’s the blasted non-economy, floating on bubbles that are harder and harder to disguise as actual prosperity. A nice daily reminder of why and how we are so constantly being jostled into the position of hustling each other. Like maybe by taking dead end jobs making cold calls and reading life-sapping pitches designed to make each of us a collaborator in the relentless effort to step on the last loose nickel rattling on the last tile of got-it-on-permanent-sale laminate floor.


So, no, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the sense of fatalism and defeat in that Appalachian voice on my old-fashioned, turn-of-the-millenium telephone line.

Not in this life.

*  *  *  *

Should I be tempted to try, though, Patty Loveless will always be there to call me back.

Loveless isn’t from West Virginia and she never joined the military. She’s from the other side of the proverbial mountain in Eastern Kentucky, though, and it might well have amounted to the same thing.

Except that my long ago correspondent spoke the truth without being entirely accurate. If you’re born with the boot on your throat–or coal dust in your lungs–there are still a few other ways to “leave” besides joining up.

And those ways are real. Of course they are–but Loveless’ way was by far the least likely.

No matter what you’ve heard, talent is rare. Talent-meeting-opportunity rarer still.

Very few indeed manage to ride out on the genius ticket.

*  *  *  *

The bold-faced quote above is probably the closest Patty Loveless has ever come to bragging on herself.

Despite an occasional brash statement in the early days, the traditional country two-step of modesty and self-deprecation has long since come to define both her career and her public persona.

Defined them, that is, even more thoroughly than it does the average country singer’s, which is saying something.

And in her case, I have far less doubt than usual that the definition is “real”–at least as far as it goes.

But I was more than usually glad to come across that “hundred years” quote, because about the time she released her most recent album (2009’s Mountain Soul II, exceptional–and bold–even by her peerless standards) I had come to an inescapable conclusion: I’m sure Patty Loveless is a very nice person, but I’m also skeptical of the idea that anybody produces a quarter-century’s worth of virtually uninterrupted brilliance in circumstances that exist to put limits on that sort of thing (that is, nobody makes sixteen albums in a row–the least of which would be a stand-up moment in any other Nashville career and the pinnacle of all but a handful), without fully intending on some more than usually fervent level to kick every single ass and take every single name.

Strictly non-provable, of course, but sometimes you can’t help what you feel. And sometimes, if you can’t shake a feeling, it’s nice to have some evidence, however scant, that it isn’t all smoke and no fire.

*  *  *  *

Even if she ends up writing the book she some times talks about, I suspect that such evidence as is going to be gathered on Loveless’ very innermost thoughts is likely to remain hard to come by. In a way, that’s all for the best. Because if there’s one other thing I would bet on being the truth in “The Patty Loveless Story,” it’s that she would prefer to be comprehended through a full understanding of her music.

But as far as I know–and despite that share of critical acclaim mentioned above–no one seems to have attempted this on any level deeper or broader than what’s permitted in a record review or a magazine piece. (Apologies in advance to efforts I’m unaware of…and please let me know.)

So if someone’s gonna try to take things at least a small step further–to make a stab at delving into the quasi-mystical side of art and its vagaries without necessarily neglecting history and biography and what not, the truth beyond the facts as it were–I figure an out-of-the-way blog is as good a place as any.

It’s probably wisest to carry out this sort of mission with no one looking over your shoulder.

*  *  *  *

So first, some history:

Loveless may have arrived on country radio with less fanfare than any truly major talent in the history of Nashville.

I got on to her I expect the way a lot of others did–being knocked out by the ease and fluidity of “Chains” and “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” when they hit the radio in the late eighties.

I picked up the concurrent album (1988’s Honky Tonk Angel, launching pad for five hit singles and nonetheless early evidence that she was already up to much more than what could be contained by a radio play list) soon enough and was mildly surprised to find she already had two others out, and had even had a few sizable hits.

More surprising was what these three albums (I acquired the other two in a hot hurry) revealed, which, from my perspective, was this:

“Finally, she’s here.”

(The pronoun was not terribly significant–I’d have thought the same about any male singer who managed to open up so many possibilities all at once while also breaking open commercially.)

Again, I don’t think this idea–or some close variation of it–was unique or even unusual among country music followers at the time.

And if I’m right about that, then I suspect I was far from alone in my subsequent thought either.


“I wonder how they’ll screw this one up?”

And by “they,” of course, I meant also “us.”

Easy as it is to blame the complicated series of mostly downbeat, mostly corporate associations that rest behind the operative word “Nashville,” there’s no denying that, when it comes to the care and preservation of popular art, distressingly familiar repeating patterns always require a large degree of audience participation.

If we get the government we deserve, then we surely get the music we deserve, too.

So I’m not letting “us” off the hook. But I do think it’s fair to claim “we” all knew the historical pattern too well to reasonably expect that even someone as promising and gifted as Patty Loveless could really break it.

[And, here, since those who don’t follow country music may not know the standard Nashville drill–i.e., the “history”–I’ll go over the basics briefly:

Big talent shows up–makes great album or two–then good album or three–then mediocre album or ten–or twenty if the image is solid enough to ensure continued sales–collects requisite awards–acquires “legend” status–can play Opry anytime–size of audience outside of Opry for remainder of career to be pretty directly related to maintenance of persona (making an occasional good record does not hurt, but it is by no means necessary).

There are, of course, variations–some version of “outlaw” (like most things in popular culture, much more easily accessed by men than women) being the most reliable.

But those are the basics. Maybe not so different than the rest of show business, then, but the embrace between audience expectations and corporate control is perhaps a little tighter in this model. More constricting you might say.]

And those constrictions–those historical patterns–are not always a bad thing. Not by any means.

Those very constrictions and patterns have produced a ton of great records.

But they do make you wonder…“what if?”

So in one respect, “The Patty Loveless Story” is the answer.

“What if…?”

*  *  *  *

What if somebody managed to take it to the end of the line?

What if one or two great albums turned into ten? Or twelve? Or fifteen and counting?

Since Nashville is bound to run on formulas, what if somebody had the right combination of grit and grace, discipline and inspiration, required to perfect a formula that didn’t wear out?

Not a singles formula (that had been done), or even a series of singles formulas (been done as well, though far less often) but an album formula?

What if somebody set out to sum up not simply some well-defined part of the “country” tradition (that, too, had been done–or was being done–primarily by Loveless’ standout contemporaries like Honky Tonk George and Countrypolitan Randy and Bakersfield Dwight and Bluegrass Ricky and Outlaw Steve, et al), but the whole thing?

What if somebody thought bluegrass and western swing and honky tonk and Bakersfield and countrypolitan and rockabilly and, hell, southern rock and California rock and fifties pop and seventies-style AOR and folk-rock and art song and a lot of other things besides were all part of some larger soundscape that no one had quite defined yet?

And what if somebody sang (and made records) as if all this should be taken for granted, without making any big fuss over it–and kept singing (and making records) that way regardless of whether their career was on the mountain or in the valley at any given moment?

What would that take?

What would that cost?

What would that sound like?

And, not least….

If such a thing did happen to occur…

How would we react?

*  *  *  *

Back in the late eighties, there was certainly no way to predict that Patty Loveless would be the person to answer these questions–questions that had remained safely theoretical until her existence made them palpable and pressing.

All I knew–or at least thought I knew–then, was that she had made three very fine, if slightly uneven, albums which showed an unusual, maybe unprecedented, combination of versatility and ambition. The only thing that was really assured was that whatever check her dreams cared to write, her pipes could cash it (though if I had been paying really strict attention to the trade mags I might have known that she was also making people rather nervous–in Nashville, one sure way to tell if knees are knocking somewhere is when whisper-words start leaking out about somebody’s “pitch control.”)

Promising then, but it was hard to forget how often similar hopes had been dashed before–even by those who had come along only a few years earlier.

The combination was exciting, sure.

But not exactly unheard of.

Over the next few years, the first years of my own response to her music, Loveless–who had fought harder than most to put herself on the map–had more opportunities than most to fall clear off of it.

Her label, which had, according to at least some reliable reports, initially held her back “for her own good” (no, really!), then famously refused to promote her (they had Reba and Wynonna and Trisha to take care of and apparently there was a publicity quota and the manner in which the whole thing was handled very much followed a well-worn blueprint that has, again at least “reportedly,” sounded a death knell to many a burgeoning country career–at least I think that’s where Mandy Barnett and Kelly Willis went). Her vocal chords famously required serious, career-threatening surgery. Her first husband just as famously revealed that she had an abortion while they were married (the soap opera elements reached as far as Wynonna Judd sliding the knife in, on Oprah no less–the morbidly curious who know how to use Google can seek out the details on-line). Her second husband became her producer–and we all knew what sort of history those relationships had! The only thing that had a worse track record than producer/singer marriages in the music business down through the ages was the continued relevance of hard-core or “neotraditional” country singers who refused to soften first the edges, then, soon after, the center of their commitment in the here and now.

Against all that, the only thing Patty Loveless, by then the very model of public reticence, ever had to offer was the music she made. It’s a measure of just how great that music was and is, that it turned out to be enough.

That’s where the genius part came in. Because what happened next doesn’t really happen to mere talent.

The label change turned into a boon. The surgery just gave her the sort of narrative PR writers need to sell a hook. Her old husband’s betrayal merely made her new choice of husbands seem that much wiser, even before the staggering albums they made together improbably took her step-by-step up the mountain to something like country music superstardom–all while pulling off the even more astounding feat of staying happily married.

The gold records turned to platinum, the awards rolled in, the singles charted ever higher (and God what singles they were: “Halfway Down,” “Here I Am,” “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?”…smile probably isn’t the right word for the memories they bring because the least of them had more bite than showed on the surface and the best of them were stabs in the heart, but smiling I am…it’s probably the fire and brimstone in me)–all without the merest trace of the usual compromise.

Heck, if anything, success just made her fiercer, rangier, and when was the last time that happened, in country music or anywhere else?

Somewhere along the way she turned into Nashville’s new version of the singer’s singer and the press (mostly the country and general entertainment press, as the establishment rock press–which always needs to be told what to think about country music and likely wouldn’t have believed the truth about Loveless even if the sources they usually relied on to clue them in had grasped it themselves–chose to mostly ignore her) not only lauded her coal-miner’s-daughter-for-a-new-age biography (probably best profiled in Laurence Leamer’s afore-referenced Three Chords and the Truth, an already deservedly classic account of Nashville’s nuts and bolts, of which the chapter on Loveless is an emotional highlight) but insisted the back-story, even more than the music itself, was proof of her pristine purity.

*  *  *  *

Which seemed funny to me, because somewhere along the way, right in this mid-nineties hey-day actually, I came to a couple more conclusions.

One was that she wasn’t going to quit. She was going to keep right on making great albums that cut deeper and deeper (and eventually added up to far, far more than the considerable sum of their parts), and that she was going to do this irrespective of where the radio or “the business” went.

The other was that an utter absence of the very “purity” which was so frequently cited–the one thing that dominated such narratives as a hard-pressed “entertainment” media could come up with–was her greatest strength.

But that was hardly all of it. At this point, what I thought, or what any other country music fan (or journalist) thought, was beginning to be beside the point. Those who were most comfortable with the idea of Loveless as no more or less than a particularly gifted practitioner of well-established tradition could find plenty of evidence for loving her on that basis alone. Just as somebody like me–who tended to stick her on mix-tapes between say, War and the Rolling Stones; who found her a perfect running mate for Lynyrd Skynyrd or Al Green on road trips; who took her seriously when she reminded people she had been formed by both her hard-scrabble country childhood and the rock singing she did in the drink-til-you-drop Carolina bar scene in her early twenties–could love her for a whole other set of reasons.

So she had carved her own space and no surprise.

It’s not like Ralph Stanley, the greatest living bluegrass singer, was making anything up when he called her voice “lonesome” and, as the years went by, she became a lonesome presence indeed.

A stubborn one, too.

Having got to the top of the mountain the hardest way possible, (the “turned my back on Nashville, married a rock drummer, had an abortion, fell out with my family, sank into drugs and drink all the way up to a serious attempt at suicide, made my way back, crawled my way up the charts, thought I had it made once, then got dump–er, traded away–by my label just before I found out I needed serious throat surgery” way) the next question was whether she would finally give in.

She could have been forgiven for bending at least a little. Especially since she had an “out” built into her original approach–a path she had burned for herself (this is where the lack of purity, and the genius, came in)–the path that was now brightly lit by the easy assimilation of modern phrasing (which was really just her phrasing, no matter how quickly others caught on and made it seem like it had been in the air all along, just waiting for any-old-body to breathe it in as inspiration and breathe it right back out as money in the bank) into the old reliable lyrical themes and ever-more-lightly twanged accents by one freshly-minted, born-in-the-suburbs superstar after another who couldn’t hold her coat.

Yes, it would have been easy to bend, given that she was now being hotly pursued by virtually every singer in Nashville who didn’t fit the laconic male model that stretches back as far as the music itself (and which is, at least for now, the only standard Nashville model that has survived the long, hard years since, though I should hasten to add that it has done no more than survive).

Very easy indeed…It’s okay to bend Patty. We’ll forgive you…

*   *   *   *

She did not bend.

She did wind it down with a new sort of formula:

Win the big awards (CMA Album of the Year in 1995, at the time a stretcher of an achievement for either a woman or a hard country singer, and a belief-defying one for an actual hillbilly who was both; CMA Female Vocalist of the year in 1996; ACM’s equivalent in 1996 and 1997).

Release one more great album (1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome–ha, ha, ha, get it?). Bleed it out with a closing track called “Where I’m Bound,” that might be her singular masterpiece if there can be such a thing in such a career.

Then take three years off.

Oh, I know. There were probably reasons that went beyond the obvious. There are always reasons that go beyond the obvious. There was reporting of the reasons–obvious and beyond–at the time. Muted, respectful. Just taking a break. Trying for a kid with the man she loved (a kid which never came–Leamer’s piece, written when the issue was still in doubt, strongly hinted that she saw it as a possible judgment on her abortion, though with what sourcing was impossible to tell).

Back soon, then. No worries. Nothing by any means really original or interesting or other than obvious.

In that respect, at least, she was normal, predictable. On the public relations side, she always was.

And, of course, she kept in touch.

Sort of. Guest appearances and the like.

But just in case you wanted to be especially stubborn–just in case you wanted, on either a conscious or subconscious level, to send some sort of perfect message about your commitment to something other than stardom, to being relevant “a hundred years from now”–you could do worse than release an album called Long Stretch of Lonesome and have the last song on it be heart-stopping even by your unearthly standards and be called “Where I’m Bound”–before you basically walked down off the top of the mountain.

If those were her first thoughts–and I have absolutely no reason to believe they were except for the perfect symmetry of it all–then she surely had second ones.

You gotta believe even geniuses are human. Probably never more human than when, having stepped aside for a rest, one finds herself watching a lot of talented somebodies who decidedly aren’t geniuses carry on (and on and on), right there on the other side of the door she blew open, reaping all the big-voiced benefits of pure commerce without ever quite getting it.

That is, not quite getting it except as commerce.

Hard to believe you wouldn’t notice, if you were her.

So, finally, when she came back with 2000’s Strong Heart, it certainly seemed that she had bent, that she had–at long last–done something we might just have to forgive her for after all! It was the kind of album any good country singer–or just any good singer period–could have made. Or at least it sounded that way, compared to where she had left off.

At the time, I felt like holding a wake and I probably wasn’t the only one.

Listening back these days it sounds better

Give or take Miranda Lambert–the good singer/genius writer/lights-out-suburban-raised-superstar who was by no means necessarily bound to show up in Loveless’ wake and therefore should never be taken for granted–I doubt any talented somebody has made better in the years since.

It was disappointing, then, only in the context of Loveless’ own career.

But the disappointment was real enough. Maybe because it sounded like the first time she had chased the radio instead of letting it chase her and it was hard not to conclude that relief was the appropriate response among us die-hards when it did not exactly set the woods on fire.

It sounded, in other words, like the run was over.

*   *   *   *

So, okay, there it was. She had given us far more than we ever could have expected or reasonably hoped for.

She had fully earned the right to bend–to do what virtually every long-lasting major country star has done to survive at some time or other (unless, like Hank Williams, they literally don’t survive long enough to come all the way up against the choice).

And then, quite understandably, she had done what she had every right to do.

She had bent.

*  *  *  *

If she had–and later developments frankly made Strong Heart sound more like a transition to something bolder than I could have possibly imagined at the time than a true capitulation–then it didn’t take her long to snap back.

Her next release was the first Mountain Soul album and it once again gave the press and a lot of fans (new and old) a handy narrative. Mountain girl who made good–who got out of those hills and past those dead-end jobs without joining the military or even “going pop”–goes back to roots. If there’s any story line country music fans (me included) are more of a sucker for than that one I haven’t come across it.

Better if it’s true, of course. And in this case it was.

To a point.

What struck me most about Mountain Soul when it was first released to rousing acclaim in 2001–actually winning some real accolades from the rock press which loves those good old back-to-the-roots stories as much as anyone, even when the roots stretch back to that part of the world they collectively trust the least, trust even less than all the other parts of the world they typically condescend to–is that it sounded like what it quite frankly still sounds like.

Which was/is a really good Patty Loveless album.

A clear step up from Strong Heart. Maybe ahead of a few of her other albums, certainly a half-step behind the very best. Sure there were new elements, mostly in the margins and mostly amounting to honing in on certain aspects of her music that had always been present. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone who had been listening close down through the years. There were always new elements on a Patty Loveless album–and she was always honing in on some subtle something or other.

And those elements–even “back to the roots” elements–always had to be “in the margins” simply because the original concept had been so broad-based–had left so much space to be filled back in the days when we could not yet know that the only person who was going to live all the way up to the implications of Patty Loveless’ early music was Patty Loveless.

So it was frustrating in a way to see her finally get some mainstream recognition for going “back” to roots she had not only never left (some did, in fact, note that), but had actually long since recognized more possibility in than even most of her admirers cared to acknowledge.

Yep. Frustrating.

More so when it was so obvious that she was only being what she had always been, which was her utterly unique self, hiding, as always, in plain sight.

And, of course, that mainstream recognition quickly went away and the old “neotraditionalist” (or whatever) label came back with a vengeance.

This time around there was at least a little bit of truth in advertising, if only because she had started to become her own tradition.

Now, to be fair, this happens on some level to nearly all truly great country singers if they last long enough. There’s no other form of American music that leaves the past behind as slowly and regretfully as country. So a form-shifter–somebody who announced up front that she was a combination of “Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn and Linda Ronstadt,” but did so in a suitably matter-of-fact manner so as not to shake anybody up in case they started thinking about what such a combination might truly mean, especially if it was really just shorthand for something even grander and scarier (give her half a chance and she would start name-checking Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, and as spiritual rather than stylistic inspirations)–was almost bound to end up with some kind of semi-legendary status if, like Loveless, they had the goods to pull the whole thing off.

[Incidentally, this works itself out in Nashville terms by, among other things, the number of invites you get to be on somebody else’s record, a practice that has kept Loveless so busy throughout her career it would be worth its own essay. By my calculation, which is almost certainly incomplete, this runs to about four additional albums’ worth of duets, tribute appearances, etc. Everything I’ve heard is first rate and much of it luminous. Of course it is.]

But in Loveless’ case it came to a bit more than usual, because her embrace of her own “tradition”–the string of fine records she kept releasing with ever more stringent adherence to old-time instrumentation and ever more subtly adventurous vocals–happened to coincide with a New Depression in the country at large.

By design or yet another “coincidence,” she started singing like the last Depression, the one the history books tell us about, never ended at the very moment when the kind of economic unease that had long become associated almost exclusively with urban ghettos, rural shotgun shacks and Loveless’ own native Appalachia (meaning associated with the specific elements of “those people” who have produced both the bedrock of America’s great music traditions and the framework of its Pentecostal sense of impending comeuppance) began to spread to the comfortable neighborhoods–consequences that were felt long before the bubble economy’s various implosions allowed them to be quite so plainly seen.

There were six albums in nine years, starting in the “boom” times and ending at the very moment when the forces forever grinding (and grinding and grinding) us commoners into fodder showed their fangs for just a fleeting moment before the necessary re-jiggering and papering over could provide them with a new set of disguises so we could all start holding hands and smiling along together again.

Six albums in nine turbulent years then.

A heavy pace for someone who no longer seemed more than marginally interested in trying to remain “mainstream.” Four were specifically labeled throwbacks–the two Mountain Soul albums sandwiched around a traditional Christmas album that was better than anybody else’s traditional Christmas album and a revelatory “oldies” tribute that was an instant gold standard for another sort of Nashville standby–all that, plus two more stabs at staying in touch which, at their best, beat everything on the radio to pieces and got hardly any play at all.

Nashville regressed, as Nashville periodically does.

She moved on–in ways almost nobody ever does.

Made sense. Who better, after all, to provide a soundtrack for the age when the skies started keeping a hint of gun-metal gray no matter how much the sun shone and the ghosts finally wandered down from the mountains and started haunting suburbia–a suburbia which has become so far-ranging and ubiquitous that even country singers are raised there these days!–in the form of foreclosure signs and empty strip malls and meth labs and jangled nerves.

That was Patty Loveless in the decade just past.

*  *  *  *

Along about here I should mention that this is how I heard it. My own specific, purely individual reaction.

By then, Loveless had given us a lot of the answers to those questions I posed above. Which meant all reactions were more than usually personal. By that time, even the evasions were personal. Yes, she had sold a lot of records. Enough to mean she’ll never be poor again. Enough, I suppose, to create factions of a sort within her own loyal fan base (arguments, perhaps, about her MCA period versus her Epic period, or her “commercial” period versus her “roots” period). But she had also gone deep down in the connection, to that place where the “reaction” gets not just personal but very, very twitchy.

And, of course, she had done so without espousing any kind of topical “politics.”

The really great artists–the ones who reach the last, deep place by finally bringing everything down to a level so close to the heart it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world thinks about what is going on between you and them–don’t generally do politics, and, if they do, they don’t usually do them for long.

The really great artists don’t generally “do” anything very specific.

Except be–a process they make very specific indeed.

And along about here, so that no one will get the wrong idea, I should also mention that hers is not a bleak vision.

Hardly. (In fact, of all the wondrous aspects of Loveless voice, perhaps the most wondrous is her ability to utterly excise country’s traditional reliance on self-pity from lyrics that seem to beg for such and replace it with an astringency that alternates between relieving tension and ratcheting it up, not always in the order you might expect based on the last time you listened to that particular song. Anyone who needs proof might start by listening to her version of “Busted.” The attention it got when Mountain Soul II was released derived from her restoration of Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which had been long since been changed from the perspective of a coal miner to that of a cotton farmer because Johnny Cash wanted to record it and, as he put it, he didn’t know anything about mining coal. The most famous versions–by Cash, Ray Charles and John Conlee, all fantastic–had at least a trace of sardonic distance. Loveless has a sense of humor, but she doesn’t do “distance.” When she sings about being driven mad, she brings it close. Not so close you drown in it, just close enough for you to wonder how she keeps it together–and if it will last.)

So not a bleak vision. No sir.

Just a guarded one. A line-walking one.

Okay, so the line is between faith and doubt and she walks it more steadfastly and more often than even the gospel Elvis or the pre-gospel Al Green did (just to mention the only two who have ever walked it at all). And she may not get on for a particular song. But if and when she does, she never, ever falls off. She always–always–hangs on and walks through to some place nobody else can get to.

But no, it’s not bleak.

Wary, I’d call it. A reminder that rock or rap or soul might be mostly about standing up and being counted even at their bleakest, but country, like the blues, is–even at its sunniest–about keeping your head down and surviving, about digging in for the long haul. About remembering that, if mighty edifices are going to be erected, somebody has to be the floor. And if the walls are going to fall, somebody has to rise up out of the dust that’s left behind and carry on.

Build new walls if you will.

And for wariness, for being guarded, for never failing to remember the need for the floor–or the fates of those who are destined to lie on it whether they learn to love where they’re from or not, to be forgotten until there’s a war to fight, or a row to hoe, or coal to be mined–for digging in, who better than Patty Loveless?

This is, after all, a woman who has said that her political views are as private as her sex life and has stuck by that in an age when suggesting your sex life is private is generally taken as a sign of arrogance, a decided unwillingness to play along and be a good sport. And, unlike nearly everybody else who says the same things, has stuck by it.

Like I said. Stubborn.

Not bleak. Just cautionary.

So, in my own personal, twitchy way, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have made exactly the same records in a time of plenty and good stewardship as she made in a time of waste and want and the attendant unease. She just would have made them about the quality of the air in the hard times coming instead of the hard times already here.

I also do not doubt that it would have been just as difficult to really tell which songs she had lived to the fullest and which hadn’t touched on her personal experience at all–those she had “merely” observed.

Or that she would, under any given broad set of circumstances, have mastered the trick of destroying the utterly meaningless distinction post-post-post-modernism believes is the only thing that means anything at all. That she would have mastered that trick which only the very greatest singers master because only the very greatest singers can consistently wipe out the boundary between experience (theirs…or yours?) and imagination (theirs…or yours?).

I have no doubt that she would have been just as good at making the high times tremble as she was at making the worst times bearable.

No, not bleak, then. Not bleak over the long haul no matter how close to the bone she might have made “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” cut as the years went by, or what that “It’s like a razor on me, knowing you want to be free” line from “Baby’s Gone Blues” sounds like when I listen back now and feel it reaching for my throat.

Not bleak, just fatalistic. Always moving back to the center, where most of us live our lives.

And therefore not truly fashionable.

*  *  *  *

Which might finally be why it’s been more than usually difficult for even the best contemporary music writers (more than a few of whom clearly love her) to capture the essence of her art within the limitations of a “publishing” tradition that is fighting for its collective life.

Because there is no one shining, easily narrated and assimilated moment that defines Patty Loveless. No signature tune or album or “event” that sums her up–or sums up even half of what I’ve said here, which is only a fraction of what there is to say–in any way that is even remotely satisfactory.

No narrative on which a hat can be hung in such a way that a broad audience of even a few thousand like-minded people might agree that “yes, this is the right hat, the hat that covers all that needs to be covered!” while also remaining at least somewhat true.

I don’t need to guess about this. I can just cite my own experience.

Because, much as I know better, I’ve dismissed half a dozen of her albums as “pretty good” over the years, only to find them creeping back into the humdrum of my daily life or my world view or my CD player because I’ve found that this supposedly “old-fashioned” hard country singer who rarely writes her own songs and draws on the same pool of Nashville talent (writers, players, backup singers–whether the one constant, that enormously gifted producer/husband, Emory Gordy, Jr., who has been on board for fourteen of her sixteen albums, is the best record man in Nashville because that’s just who he is or because he happens to be the one Patty Loveless put her trust in, is a question that runs along the chicken vs. egg paradigm…unanswerable) as everyone else, has been running out ahead of me yet again.

This was brought home most powerfully when a day long driving trip through Georgia and the Carolinas in the fall of 2009, with the just released Mountain Soul II for a constant hour-by-hour companion to the relentless and readily visible evidence of the deep-in-the-bone economic blight that had spread from the usual forgotten small towns and inner cities all the way to the interstates, made me realize that this was what the decade (or maybe several decades) prior had been leading up to. Suddenly, all the chances she had taken–or refrained from taking–with that matchless voice that still sounds like we dreamed it up, the utter refusal to give in to excess or stray from the heart of whatever she was singing to or about for even a single second, even when the trends brought on by the passing years and, oddly enough, the extension of her own pervasive (if rarely acknowledged) influence, made that more and more clearly the “safe” option, made perfect sense.

And a whole lot of what I had missed–in the world at large and in her music specifically, going all the way back to Strong Heart a decade before–was illuminated.

After which I started listening to her older albums in a different light and found that they, too, were of a piece.

That what I heard today might help me finally make sense of something she did twenty years back.

And vice versa.

*  *  *  *

And why, pray tell, should that matter?

Well you may ask.

Heck, I live in America. And, warts and all, I’ve never (absent youthful wanderlust), had much desire to live anywhere else, not even the day after an election.

But I know a few things.

I know we’re the people who always think we can run away from everything. Who are ever so sure that–never mind William “the past isn’t dead it isn’t even past” Faulkner–the past is really just helpless. Helpless because it will always be around but it will never catch up.

Not to us.

Not out here away from the mountain hollows or war-zone city streets. Not out here in nice safe white middle-class neighborhoods where we’ve long since proved we can breed a Nashville cat quick as a country club lawyer.

Out here, we always know that no matter how many times we sell our collective soul, we’ll always figure out some way to buy it back!

If Patty Loveless may well be–as the fine blog-site Country Universe put it–“the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success” then it’s our loss.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, after all, that this last great mountain singer (who also happens to be virtually the only modern country star who was raised with the poverty wolf once so common to southern rural childhoods at least within howling distance of her door) has been especially good at catching the tenor of these particular times even as she never strays very far from country’s time-honored subject matter.

Who else would we expect to remind us Americans–we the people who are always sure we can run away from the consequences of whatever sins we care to commit–that we really can’t? And how else would she remind us except the way such voices have always reminded us? Not by preaching sermons–not ever, not Cotton Mather/Jonathan Edwards sermons or Pat Robertson/Billy Graham sermons or even Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen sermons–but by singing broken love songs and love’s gonna last songs. Saturday night drinking and dancing songs that sometimes, but only sometimes, end with hangovers. Grandpa songs. Mama songs. Working class hero songs. Gonna leave songs, gonna stay songs, come to Jesus songs, go to the devil songs. Same old, same old.

Who else would want that job, let alone embrace it, if not the last great mountain singer?

Who else could step into that role and just be?

For all that I think the answers to those questions are obvious (nobody else, that’s who!), I don’t finally claim any special insight into Patty Loveless or her music. I think most of what I hear is also pretty obvious. And I think the reasons for even some of her most ardent and devoted fans to hold this particular idea of her music at arm’s length–to find only comfort, only updated tradition–are not merely understandable but eminently reasonable. You want/need to be healed, by all means be healed. I would have to be a moral idiot to ever begrudge anybody that. I sometimes want/need to be healed myself.

Besides that, I’m not even sure I’m “right!” There’s no way I can be. My position feels a little too extreme for that. Lots of people think she’s real good. Lot’s of people think she’s “great!”

I don’t think she has to bow down to anybody. Ever. And, yes, that feels a little extreme. I’m not sure too many people have made that point.

So sure, I’ve been hacking away, bit by bit, at this little “think-piece” for months on end. But, when it’s all said and done, maybe Patty Loveless really is/was just another good country singer and I’ve been crazy all these years to think she was/is ever so much more. Maybe she doesn’t really need to be parsed any longer or deeper than what’s generally done for an interview in the local paper or a nice complimentary write-up for her latest record in the better class of trade mags or another re-hash of her too-good-to-be-made-up biography.

I honestly don’t know. This sort of response–this twisty, personal reaction thing I have going on–does not run to the sort of proof offered up by mathematical formulas or rack sales.

The only thing that keeps convincing me–keeps making me doubt and then not doubt–is her records.

And for all her massive talent, all that rock and soul variance so subtly intertwined with the specifically country verities, all that freedom unleashed by all that ceaselessly unfailing (one might almost say ungodly) discipline, what I really hear in those records is not so much the considerable thrill of her technique or her matchless timbre, (so country and so not, so pure and so not, so “traditional”…and so not) but a quality of the soul.

No voice, however great–however “perfect”– could combine country’s (or America’s) aspirational side with its fatalistic side so adroitly and for so, so long, or could ever keep such constant faith with a past the present seems so determined not merely to forget but to crush–all on its own.

No voice could achieve that long-standing miracle without resort to constant habits of clear thinking and wrestling with hard choices. We know this because “miracle” voices happen along in Nashville and elsewhere every few years and sometimes more often than that.

And some of those voices last a very long time. A few manage to tease out the perspiration-inspiration equation it takes to become institutions even.

And deservedly so. God knows.

But very, very few remain miracles. Sooner or later, even the very greatest artists learn that perspiration really is the easy part. And then they set the commitment inspiration requires aside to take a well-deserved day or year or decade to just get along.

I have no idea what part of Patty Loveless won’t let her do that. What part of her never, ever lets her just go along.

Oh sure, she can shut up for a while.

Heck it’s been three and a half years (and, to be fair, a lot of familial heartbreak) since her last record, and there was no mountain to come down from–no stardom to reject–this time around.

So absolutely she knows how to shut up.



That she can’t seem to do and I have no earth-shaking insights at all as to the “why.”

*   *   *   *

I do have a few impulses (“thought” would be far too elevated a word).

We do actually have some things in common that might inspire some sort of greater than usual fellow feeling. We’re both southerners with deep Appalachian roots (East Tennessee back to the 1780s for me, Eastern Kentucky back however far for her). We’re about the same age. Evidently, we both know something about growing up in a household where a beloved parent struggles mightily to keep from coughing up a lung, and does so full courtesy of the man (coal dust from the mine for her father, cotton dust from the mill for my mother). We both moved and found out what it was like to be a fish out of water at the age when you really, really want to be swimming along with everybody else–me being gently mocked for being too city in the country, she being not-so-gently mocked for being too country in the city.

Maybe all those things, plus a few more I won’t bore you with, add up to something.

But I actually doubt it.

Like I said, I think what I hear in Patty Loveless is pretty obvious to anyone who gets it at all, and mostly inaccessible–except as considerable pleasure and passing transcendence–to everyone else.

For better or worse, it’s probably available mostly to kindred spirits, not common experience. After all, just how “kindred” common experience really makes us is anyone’s guess.

But we know what the heart does.

We know that even in this reality-driven, fact-obsessed, machine-tooled world we’ve made–that is, in fact, carrying these very words to once-unthinkable regions as matter-of-factly as wood feeds fire or water puts it out–it’s still the heart that really understands.

*  *  *  *

Counting her various “guest” appearances and one-offs, Patty Loveless has recorded about two hundred sides. On maybe a hundred and fifty of them, she’s done what a lot of the greatest singers who ever lived did only a handful of times or never at all–worn each one not like a suit of clothes (hard, but every really good singer can do that), but like a second skin. And if the last fifty–the bottom fifty–were the best she ever did, she would still be well worth talking about, still be worthy of whatever “Hall of Fame” she was eligible for.

She’d still be real, real good.

She just wouldn’t be Patty Loveless.

She wouldn’t be the one who decided to find out what the cost/reward analysis was on never giving in. And then went ahead and did it.

So maybe all that’s really required to “get” her is the willingness–or perhaps it’s the need–to have at least one singer in your head who truly believes that’s the only way to be.

*  *  *  *

As I write this, Loveless has not released an album in three and a half years, the longest break in her career. I have no idea if she will release ten more albums or none. Or, if another one does come, whether it is six months away or six years. No way to know if and when the next one does come how I will hear it out of the box. It might blow the top of my head straight off like Mountain Soul II or Long Stretch of Lonesome or 1992’s Only What I Feel. It might take some real getting used to like Strong Heart. It might be real nice to listen to for a few years before it starts to seep into my bones like 1988’s My Heart Had Windows or 2002’s Blue Grass and White Snow. It might announce itself as an instant classic which nonethless won’t reveal its true secrets for years, like the albums that took her to the top of country music between 1993 and 1996.

Who knows?

And, since I can’t say where she’s going, I’ll let the story end (for now!) with where she’s been. I started with the first cut from her first album so I’ll conclude with the last cut from her most recent. Listening to them together might say more about the journey so far–the journey from bottomless promise to faith fully rewarded, the journey each listener probably only gets to take with one or two singers in a lifetime–than another ten thousand words ever could.

Patty Loveless “Diamond In My Crown” (Video)

[Additional Note: Although this piece took a long time to write, I’m using it to inagurate a new category, “Vocalist of the Month.” The approach will be varied–more fun, less sweating blood, I promise!–but it seems like a good approach to writing in depth about more singers that I care about, which is, after all, still the main focus of this blog.]


That’s the definition I gave rock and roll here (discussing a song which, just oh-by-the-way, I consider more “adult” than any broached below).

A few posts back I also mentioned Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s praise of Donald Fagen’s recent solo album as an example of another definition of rock and roll–children’s music very occasionally redeemed by a fellow collegian.

I meant my own comment somewhat sardonically but Teachout has, sadly, doubled down in an article titled “How to Be an Aging Rocker,” which manages to be a sort of perfect summation of certain falsehoods that were born in rock’s early dawn and have been repeated with such numbing regularity–by friends and enemies alike–that they have long since achieved the force of government sponsored propaganda.

By all means read the whole thing, but the basic argument is distilled in the following sentence:

“One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people.”

Oh, my. Here we go again.

First, let me reiterate that I’m not down on Teachout, Fagen or Steely Dan, all of whom I admire.

But goodness, talk about pulling out all the usual stops:

Aren’t you embarrassed by that stuff you listened to when you were young?

Did you know that Steely Dan used to employ honest-to-God JAZZ musicians who could really play on their albums?

Have you noticed that the Rolling Stones really suck these days?

Mind you, Terry was a serious young man. He assures us his teenage musical diet was filled with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane. I’m guessing if he had gone in for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (the way I did, a decade later, when it was really uncool, though not nearly as uncool as my affection for the likes of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John!), he would probably have shot himself by now.

Which would be a real shame, because when Teachout is blogging, i.e., writing in a genuinely personal way, he’s quite astute and charming.

When he’s writing for hire, alas, he is prone to bouts of moral and mental paralysis.

Thus are dubious thought processes that happen to coincide with the prevailing interests of even more dubious establishmentarianism sustained, generation by generation.

So the article–couched in the false assumption that, compared to other art forms, “rock n’ roll” has aged badly–leaps from one zone-of-safety-falsehood-disguised-as-hard-risk-taking-truth to another.

All the usual methods are deployed:

There’s the straw-man argument. To which, what can I say?

Yes, the Rolling Stones really do suck and have for a long time. Of course, band inspiration is notoriously hard to sustain–much harder than individual craft and/or genius. So why not compare Fagen to Neil Young or Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen or late-period Bob Dylan, to name only the most obvious candidates? Maybe because, making the argument that they have spent decades making specious, “immature” music is quite a bit harder to sustain (even if, like Fagen, they may not have quite sustained the brilliance of youth)?

Well, yes, that could be it. Maybe. Or probably. Or certainly.

(That lays aside of course the argument that the Rolling Stones earned the right to suck because they once reached and sustained heights Steely Dan never even aspired to, heights far beyond mere “maturity.”…I’m laying it aside because I think that’s another argument.)

As for a statement like “Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups.”

Even if, by chance you don’t think say “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is a better “amalgam” of rock, jazz and soul, than anything Fagen has ever managed (and even if, by chance you find the attachment of the word “soul” to Fagen’s music a bit odd), you might want to consider another question or two.

Like whether the Nashville cats who played on “Heartbreak Hotel” way back when would have had any trouble keeping up with a Steely Dan session? Or whether the “country” lyricists of such immature music–or the Memphis hillbilly who turned a hot-musical-trend into a full blown cultural revolution by his manner of presenting them–had trouble comprehending Dan-style irony?

You know, way back when.

And if you know the answers to those questions (respectively, “no” and “no”)–as Teachout and oh, so many others doubtless would if they were allowed to maintain the habit of thinking for themselves all of the time instead of just some of the time–then you also know whether it’s the rock and rollers who should be embarrassed by their absence of “maturity.”

(Incidentally, if immaturity there must be, let it be as below…Sure wish we had torn down those walls. And let us also remind ourselves that somewhat different ideas of where that whole notion of an “amalgam of rock, jazz and soul” actually came from do still exist:)

Jefferson Airplane “We Can Be Together” (Live in Studio, 1970)

(And, of course, here are the Rolling Stones, being all blunt and “garage-band” sounding as they take the next-to-the-last-step to the place from whence they could not, would not, did not return:)

Rolling Stones “Moonlight Mile” (Studio recording…with unusually excellent photo montage)