Country Music Hall of Famer Fred Foster had a long and varied career as a producer, talent scout, and label owner. His main labels, Monument and Sound Stage 7 (a rare Nashville-based soul label), were among the most successful and important of their era, the era when independent labels had more success and importance than ever before or since. His contributions to American music included jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Dean, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (with whom he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee”) while his labels gave a home to the likes of Tony Joe White and Joe Simon.
But his greatest moment came when he head something in Roy Orbison’s voice which had escaped the ears of record men as formidable as Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins. By the time Orbison signed with Foster’s Monument label in Nashville in 1960, he had, as the saying goes, been kicked out of all the best places in town and was scraping by as a contract songwriter for the country publishing giant Acuff-Rose. With Foster (and songwriter Joe Melson) Roy was able to fashion this:
It got just enough attention to allow a little experimenting on the next record, which was only this…
…which set Roy Orbison on the path to being one of the biggest stars of the era and gave him a grip on the souls of the lonely that will last until the day we’re officially outlawed.
Elvis had been offered the demo of “Only the Lonely” and took a pass. When he heard Oribson’s finished product on the radio he immediately ordered boxes of the 45 and began handing them out to anyone who would listen.
That’s how much difference Fred Foster made. He passed away on Feb. 20, at age 87.
This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.
You know. According to me.
And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.
It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…
Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.
Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.
Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…
Dream Ballot:Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.
Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…
Dream Ballot:Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!
Actual Nominee:Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.
Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.
Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO, which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…
Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.
Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…
Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]
Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.
Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.
Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…
Dream Ballot:Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi? She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.
Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….
Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.
Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.
Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.
Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?
Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)
Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…
Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?
Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…
Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.
Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…
Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….
[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]
Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…
Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)
Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…
Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?
Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.
Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…
Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…
Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.
Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.
Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.
Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!
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.
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…
I don’t do a whole lot of lists, but I’m not immune to them. If I ever got really full of myself (or something stronger) and did one that was titled something like “The Ten Most Beautiful Records Ever Made,” Jeannie Kendall, who most of the world has never hear of, and is remembered by most of those who have for “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and nothing else, would probably be singing on about seven of them.
One of those would be her recorded version of “Making Believe,” which would also top any list entitled “The Greatest Versions of ‘Making Believe.'”
And “Making Believe” is one of the few songs that actually has enough great versions to warrant a list. It’s one of those songs nearly every country giant (and not a few from other fields) has not only taken a crack at but done justice by. The great country women, either soloing or duetting (as Jeannie did with her father) have been especially drawn to it: Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Anita Carter, Emmylou Harris, Loretta and Conway, Patty and Vince. That’s in addition to Merle Haggard, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.
You know, like that.
Just at the high end. Just for starters.
But on record, nobody made it cut like the Kendalls.
My improbable discovery of the past week was that they made it cut even deeper on Austin City Limits, way back when:
And my other not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that it still doesn’t cut as deep as “Just Like Real People” or “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” or “I’m Coming Down Lonely,” which is so obscure that it’s not even on YouTube.
So my final not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that we’re not living in a perfect world just yet.
Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.
Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines. That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.
To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)
So without further adieu:
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)
Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc. and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.
The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)
Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.
Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)
Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)
Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.
Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.
Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.
Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)
Raspberries Starting Over (1974)
Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?
Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)
Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.
Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.
Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.
Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.
Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)
…There used to be a certain type of professional songwriter who wasn’t easy, or even possible, to categorize. They only existed for a relatively brief time, between say the fifties and, at the outside, the eighties. Before that, songs and songwriters fit into fairly neat slots, like pretty much everything else in the music industry. Since then, songs have principally become vehicles of “personal expression,” usually unearned angst, and songwriters have largely become corporate entities with interests that hie closer to spread sheet balances than memorable melodies. None of which is new, of course, but the concepts have metastasized to the point where the kind of songwriters who pumped a good deal of popular music’s life blood in the only era when music was at the center of American culture have been made virtually obsolete.
Nobody exemplified that noble concept better than Wayne Carson, who passed away from congestive heart failure this week at 72. He doesn’t need me to say much. A lot of folks already said it for me. In a lot of different ways:
My internet speed issues have finally become sufficiently annoying/debilitating that I’m actually having to go into the office this week. (Go ahead, tell me civilization is still standing. I’ll believe you. I promise.)
One result is more radio than usual and last night on the way home I caught what I take to be Miranda Lambert’s latest, which on the radio, was, like a lot of her stuff, darn catchy and kinda’ edgy and definitely unique. I mean, I could tell it was her, which, these days is enough to make a singer practically a genius all by itself.
Even as I was smiling at rhymes like Tony Lloma and Oklahoma, though, I knew (like I always know when I’m listening to even the best modern country music) that something was missing.
What and why? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself when I’m listening to modern radio…and not just about country.
But country’s got a unique tradition. Unlike rock and roll or jazz it’s never been broadly amorphous. Unlike blues or gospel it’s always been a truly popular (as opposed to populist) music, it’s definitive practitioners able to reach far larger audiences than Muddy Waters or Marion Williams or the Blackwood Brothers. And, unlike Tin Pan Alley or hip-hop, it’s never been truly hidebound (much as the suits would have preferred it, one time and another).
All that being said, some time in the last ten years or so, a switch has been flipped at country radio. Yes, the generations changed. The great women of the eighties and nineties turned forty. The great men turned fifty…then sixty. Country’s sell-by date for charting hits comes a little later, but it comes.
And, in the past, stretching back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, somebody always stepped in. Styles changed, expanded. New visions were incorporated.
The core remained. A music that could accommodate Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, remained nonetheless grounded in some certain something.
To be honest, until last night, I always knew it when I heard it, but I never even thought about whether it might have a name. All that really happened at first was that Miranda’s song put me in a country mood (or, at least, more of a country mood, since my re-acquisition of Rhino’s old Buck Owens’ box–lost in the great CD sell-off of 2002–had me leaning that direction anyway). So I went to Moe Bandy and Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis and I had pulled Charlie Rich and Don Gibson, when Mel’s “Your Body Is An Outlaw” got me to wondering, yet again, whether his daughter Pam was singing the backup part because it came out in 1980 or ’81 and she didn’t get famous herself for another decade but, once she did, I started thinking it sure sounded like her, and yeah, it’s kind of weird to be singing a duet with your daughter on a song like that, but then again Jeannie and Royce Kendall were making a career out of it around the same time so it certainly wasn’t unheard of.
So I went to the good old internet, Wikipedia and the like, and came up dry.
Then I went to YouTube, good old YouTube, and some authoritative sounding gentleman was in the comment section of at least two different clips claiming that, yes, Pam had sung back up on this…
And, having that for unofficial confirmation, what I could then safely say was that it sounded even more like her than ever…and I was sure in the mood for some Pam Tillis.
So I went to pull her epochal Put Yourself In My Place, one of the greatest albums ever made and the one that made her a star (and which I wrote about here). While I was at it, I saw Rhinestoned, a CD Tillis released on her own label back in 2007 and which I bought a discarded dee-jay copy of at the late, lamented Vinyl Fever before it would have been played on the radio.
You know, if it had been played on the radio.
Which is wasn’t. Because Pam was fifty by then. If you’re fifty and you’re a woman and you’re not Dolly Parton, you don’t get played on the radio.
You want to make a CD, you better go ahead and start your own label.
The thing is, I’ve had Rhinestoned for seven-eight years now and I had listened to it once and thought it was okay, nothing special, like what you might expect from a favorite who had veered a little pop when she was trying to hang on in the mid-to-late nineties and now was down to releasing stuff on her own label.
Still, I thought seven-eight years was long enough. I should probably give it another try.
And, lo and behold, there was another great Pam Tillis album that had been sitting on my self all those years, waiting for me to get my head right so I could finally hear it. (Did I mention that 2007-8 were rugged years? Dad died, eyes deteriorating with a good chance the deterioration wouldn’t stop, savings gone, writer’s block like I never had before or since. Like that.)
And while I was listening to this particular record (and the particular cut linked below) I realized what has gone missing from the core of country music that gets played on the radio…and most of that which doesn’t.
Because, I realized that, in order to be a really great country singer, you have to contain within yourself the essence of the word Ralph Stanley used to describe Patty Loveless when she was at the height of her fame and which has gone entirely missing from modern country radio. The quality that even Miranda Lambert (Loveless’ own favorite modern) doesn’t quite possess.