By request…you can revisit yesterday’s post here.
And listen to another musical variation on the theme of all we have not learned here.
By request…you can revisit yesterday’s post here.
And listen to another musical variation on the theme of all we have not learned here.
In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.
The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”
Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….
…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.
Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.
Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….
..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…
…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.
Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.
I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.
And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.
There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then. And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.
Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.
And nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:
Born: Tampa (1932).
Died: Ocala (2017).
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
Take it Mavis:
New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.
Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)
Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.
Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.
There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.
It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.
The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.
I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.
Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.
If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.
It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.
She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.
I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.
She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.
And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.
Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.
What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.
What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.
Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.
Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.
I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.
10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)
This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.
The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.
Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.
2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)
A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.
Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.
One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.
8) The Orlons Best of (1961-1966) (2005)
Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups who sustained even a modest string of hits.
While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.
And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.
7) Fleetwood Mac Rumours (1977) (2-Disc version, aka Ghost Rumours, released 2004)
I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.
I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean “alive.”
Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.
6) Mark Chesnutt The Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)
Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.
From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.
It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.
If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.
5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)
Speaking of cranking the volume.
Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).
4) The Platters The Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)
Shelter from the storm.
If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.
Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.
And in one respect,Tony was even greater than Chuck Berry. Plenty of guitar players have forged out past Chuck on some ground or other that he broke open. No ballad singer has ever gotten past this anywhere…unless maybe it was Tony Wiliams.
.3) The Isley Brothers Givin’ It Back (1971)
A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.
It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.
I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).
2) Dwight Yoakum Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.
Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.
Same thing this time.
This time, like every other time, I left what I was doing and came into the room for this.
1) Martha & the Vandellas Live Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)
Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.
What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.
Near the end of Dawn at Socorro, one of those lean-as-a-tomcat westerns Hollywood turned out every other day in the fifties, Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-reform-and-waitin’-for-a-train gunfighter has somebody else’s gun handed to him at the station and is told destiny will be along “in two minutes.”
The station master pokes his head out of the office to ask if he knows who’s coming for him.
“My past,” Calhoun’s Brett Wade says, just before he steps into the street where he’ll gun down four men to keep a girl he met the day before from having to some day say the same. “Every dark, miserable day of it.”
Every great country singer’s voice carries some version of that lament within but Waylon Jennings was its most perfect embodiment.
Partly it was a matter of persona. But, regarding some matters, persona isn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t even talk the talk without first walking the walk.
In the salons and “scenes” where the importance of everything is decided for the rest of us, Waylon’s old comrade-in-arms, Willie Nelson, is the hip one, the name-dropped one, the artiste, the one who nobody would want living in the neighborhood exactly (I mean, who’s so gauche he can’t even fox the taxman?), but who would definitely be fun at parties. If somebody’s on PBS right now talking about how they just love those “rough-voiced” eccentrics who didn’t sing too pretty, they might throw Willie in there with Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or even Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.
I only know this because I’ve heard them do it.
They don’t throw in Waylon.
Oh, they’ll speak fondly of him if his name happens to come up.
Wasn’t he friends with Willie?
Such an outlaw, too. They started that whole thing, you know. Good for them!
I mean who at PBS or the Voice doesn’t love an outlaw?
They’re always a little reserved, though. Sure they love Waylon.
But they always want to get back to talking about Willie.
And that makes sense, because deep down, I don’t think even the dimmest pinot-sipper in the land fails to understand that if they ever find themselves in a hinterland roadhouse (presumably on some assignment roughly equivalent to reporting from the African bush), they’ll be in a world that sure does love old Willie and sure does know he’s great….and sure knows he ain’t Waylon.
When you cross that old Red River of the heart, boys, Waylon Jennings is still the king.
* * * *
How and why?
The outline of the tale is familiar. Buddy Holly’s band. Lost a coin flip for a seat on the plane.
I’ll be nice and warm at the next stop while you’re freezin’ your ass off on that bus son.
Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes!
Words to that effect.
The future waiting to be born, son.
Every dark, miserable day of it.
Then the rest. An all but inevitable guilt-and-recovery period in West Texas followed by the usual road to Nashville and as conventional a stardom as a genuine eccentric can have. Hits. The Opry. Whiskey river. Nicotine stains. Life on the road in a hillbilly band.
And, all along the way, a series of accumulations: of wisdom, hard knocks, gravitas, a catch in the throat. Always the spiritual and physical pull back to Texas, where, more or less inevitably, “outlaw” morphed from an attitude into what should have been a pretty disposable image, a way to sell records for a few years until the next thing came along.
Except with Waylon, it was more than just a phase. The word fit any number of people, but he was the only one who made it sound necessary, while also keeping a claim on the top of the country charts for as long as any of the perfectly respectable superstars aiming for the middle of the road. Between the “just try and make me give a shit” world represented by Billy Joe Shaver and the “send my regrets” aspirational world represented by someone as tough as even Merle Haggard, there was no guarantee of a fit–no guarantee that anyone could sing from the other side of the tracks without even pretending he wanted to cross over. Waylon Jennings was one of those singers the world didn’t know it needed–and who maybe didn’t know it needed him–until he found his true voice.
You can hear every step of that journey, including the discomfort with form-and-formula’s easy promises that meant he would eventually have to strike out down his own path, and the disdain for form-and-formula’s easy rewards that meant no easy hat–not even the outlaw hat–would ever quite fit his head, on Nashville Rebel, the superb box set from 2006.
It’s a long way from being the only Waylon you’ll ever need, but it’s still a stunning overview, and with 93 cuts that stretch from 1958 to 1995, it’s a deep dive.
You could go deeper. Just for starters, this doesn’t have his originals of “Broken Promise Land” (an album cut that was later a fine hit for Mark Chestnutt) or “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (a stiff that was later an even finer hit for Travis Tritt). I mean when you can leave this of your four-disc box set, you’re catalog is pretty much bottomless:
A close listen to that cut goes some way toward explaining why the taste-makers have never quite been comfortable embracing Waylon’s music, however much they pretend to be enamored of his image. There’s a tremulous catch that’s forever threatening to break into a sob, a device he used more than occasionally on ballads. It’s a device familiar to Pentecostal Sunday mornings, where it’s used almost exclusively by rough-hewn males overcome by some regret, real or imagined.
And with Waylon, as with the sinners he was emulating–or honoring–it’s not always possible to extricate the real emotion from the professional showmanship. Is that a true catch in his throat, or one carefully summoned for the occasion?
This, too, is a common thread among country singers, one shared with white gospel singers the way shoutin’-n’-moanin’ is shared by black gospel and soul singers. On either side of that narrow divide, sometimes the raw emotion is too real for words, sometimes too synthetic for advertising. Either way, in the voices of of the greats, it’s always posited as a means of not merely striving to connect experiences, but of telling the true believers (that is, the ones who know which part of the fakery is meant only for them and is, oddly, therefore earned) from the deep-dyed poseurs (who are always certain their b.s. detector is superior to yours) .
Waylon Jennings, who could calculate a sloppy tear-in-the-beer as well as any pew-bound side-burned car salesman who ever lived, teased out the distinctions between hard truth (lived!) and careful constructs (imagined!…or “faked”) like no one else this side of Solomon Burke. It’s a quality Robert Christgau once summed up as “grease.”
But the audience Waylon sang for knew grease doesn’t always mean Brylcreem. Sometimes it means you’ve been working the gears. Sometimes it means you’re shiny with sweat. Yeah, it still means the word-slingers at the Village Voice are looking down on you. It means that, no matter how you cut it. But some of those definitions earn you the right to slough off the others. You sweat enough, work enough, and everybody who did the same will cut you some slack on the grease-stain your head leaves on the pillow case. There are places where your work ethic–finally inextricable from your willingness to continually put yourself on the line between art and showmanship–will earn you a sneer.
Other places it just means you are walking the walk
* * * *
So Waylon Jennings, with the perfect name, perfect biography, perfect voice, perfect set of sins, walked the walk up one side of country stardom and down the other.
Up to Nashville…
Where some part of him could never quite fit…
And there was no choice except to keep shearing away everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, while he walked down the other side of the slippery slope where everybody expects you to take a header…
Disc 2-8 and 2-18:
Until, if you surprise everybody and manage to stay upright, somebody in the advertising department has to come up with the obvious and call you “Outlaw”…
Which turns out to be just a way to hide in plain sight while you dig deeper…
After which, you have a chance to do your schtick …
And then, having proved yourself four times over, you earn a chance, just every once in a while, to be free…
Like all the greatest singers in any genre, The Hoss carried the weight of everything he had done–for and to himself, for and to others–in even his slightest performances. More than most great singers, there came a time he had done enough for and to everybody that nothing was ever really slight. Which is why this box tracks all the way to the end.
So long Slick.
Back in the land where most of us got called Hoss by somebody or other, we haven’t forgot who the real Hoss is….
…or that the first requirement is the ability to laugh at yourself
Waylon Jennings: 1937-2002
(Note: I’m going to make an extra effort to get the Vocalist of the Month category going again. As part of the new day, I’m going to recommend some good starting points for anyone not already familiar with the artist. As always, I ask you to consider clicking through my site’s icon if you want to buy anything from Amazon. I get a few pennies on the dollar and any proceeds go to supporting the site or purchasing material for review.)
Nashville Rebel (2006) A fantastic box, partially reviewed above, which stretches from the late fifties to the mid-nineties. There’s no better place to get a firm grasp on the scope of Jennings’ achievement. What I’ve linked above is a smattering.
Time Life Legendary Country Singers (1996) On the other hand, if you want to limit yourself to the highlights, you can’t beat this collection, which is long out of print but tends to be readily available cheap and used.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (1973)
Dreaming My Dreams (1975)
Turn the Page (1985)
The pick of the litter from the half dozen or so I own. I imagine there are a dozen more of the same quality but these give a good sense of what was going on behind the hits.
Waylon Live! Expanded Edition (2003) A good bet for the greatest live country collection and a match for any live music released in any genre. This turns the excellent album he released in 1976 into a two-hour dream show that doesn’t quit. One of those moments (or series of related moments) when everything comes together…and everything clicks.
“We Had It All”
Dobie Gray (1973)
Not released as a single.
Recommended source: Drift Away: A Decade of Dobie (1969-1979) (Highly recommended if you have the bucks. One of the era’s great undersung vocalists)
This is a song that’s been done by Waylon Jennings (he had the country hit), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the Rolling Stones (as a late seventies outtake available on YouTube), Bob Dylan and a cast of thousands.
Like more than a few songs recorded by lots of people it was defined by Dobie Gray. Like every record defined by Dobie Gray that wasn’t “Drift Away” or “The In Crowd,” it was not a big hit. In this case, it was not even released as a single–probably because Waylon (or Waylon’s label) beat him to the punch.
It was a highlight of Gray’s debut LP for MCA, which was also his first attempt at cracking the black-man-in-Nashville code that, in eighty years of the town’s race-coded hegemony, has only been fully solved by Charley Pride and Darius Rucker.
When Dobie came to town, there was a whiff of unusual promise. The era saw established artists like the Pointer Sisters and Tina Turner (this was when she took her own fine crack at “We Had It All”) follow Ray Charles’ long-ago footsteps to the country capital. Better than that, fabulous singers with truly country roots and voices–Gray, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton–came tantalizingly close to establishing themselves on country radio, a bond which, if ever fully formed, would have been bound to be long-lasting. No audience is quite as loyal as the country audience.
It didn’t happen.
I wonder where we’d be now if it had.
We can’t know, but Dobie Gray often sounded like a man who had already accepted the impossibility of catching the version of the American dream–the real American dream–he was chasing. Never more so than here, where every word smiles and every word aches.
(NOTE: The only singer who gave Dobie a run for his money when he dug in was Elvis, who matched him on “Lovin’ Arms” and “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In).” I’ll give a dollar on a nickel he knew a fellow dreamer when he heard one.)
“Legend” hardly cuts it.
Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).
Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).
And after that?
Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.
Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.
But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.
In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.
Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.
Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.
Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:
He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…
Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…
The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…
By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.
Big names even.
Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.
What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…
…and literally a hundred more.
You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”
To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”
As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”
You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.
But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!
Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?
In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…
and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…
And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone, sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…
…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…
Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.
But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.
Those records could be as great and iconic as this…
or even this…
But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…
Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).
As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.
One man did.
That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…
and is now reduced to no more than this…
…will play no small part.
So long brother. You did good. You did real good.
Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)
American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)
Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)
Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)
This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.
I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.
As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.
Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.
But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird) and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.
Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.
Not with the world on fire and everything.
I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.
I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.
You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.
I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.
Don’t worry. No one has.
Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.
Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.
Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).
Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”
Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.
Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.
Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.
Killing is terrible.
The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.
There’s one big difference, of course.
Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.
Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.
The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.
In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.
Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.
Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.
A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.
However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.
He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:
Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.
That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.
Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.
Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.
That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.
For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.
We’re all Shadow Warriors now.
And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.
Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.
…and the reasons why.
“Psycho” Elvis Costello (1979)…too close to actually being inside the mind of a psychopath. Costello made many great sides before this, only a handful since. Coincidence? Probably not. (No link available that I could find.)
“I Miss You” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) (1972)…too close to being in somebody else’s life where I don’t belong, like overhearing a friend’s conversation and knowing that, for better or worse, you’ll never feel the same about them again.
“I Feel Like Going Home” (Charlie Rich–Acoustic Version) (1973)…too close to the bone of Calvinist fatalism for anyone who believes in the resurrection to come away unscarred.
“Powerderfinger” Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1979)…too close to the deepest nightmares of a culture that has always prized violence a little too highly.
“Six White Horses” Waylon Jennings (1969)…too constant a reminder that Viet Nam is a wound that has never healed and never will.
“Angel From Montgomery” Tanya Tucker (1977)…too keen a reminder of certain older women I knew in youth who had nothing left, including hope, and, therefore–unlike the fine versions by composer John Prine and all-timer Bonnie Raitt–too much like a black hole in the sun. (No link to the studio version. There’s a terrific live version here, but I don’t find it scarifying.)