Category Archives: music

It’s Sandro about Biennale

I just had a bizarre twitter encounter with a fancily-titled music writer that made me feel … old. See below.

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Instead of engaging in further back-and-forth I’m taking it here to my safe space. My first comment was a little flip, I admit, but them I spent a few minutes coming up with a conciliatory follow-up, which was met by an even more spectacularly tourrettes-y outburst, and lots of faves for the eruption. Some jolly folks chimed in to make light of “this guy,” (i.e. me).

I’ve gotten more mentions on this encounter than in my entire previous twitter history…

The experience made me feel like the Dude in The Big Lebowski in the Biennale scene. Lots of stuff whizzing past his ears that he doesn’t get, except that it’s clear he’s the butt of the joke.

And yet… I still feel like I’m right. Why would you credit the Jam with David Watts’ “critique of masculinity” just because they covered a Kinks song…

Let me know what I’m missing, folks….

Friday miscellany: Fecundity, Andre the Giant, and an epic photo

Sunday evening Buster Pike bike ride

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

This is the time of year when I am overwhelmed by the fecundity of the world. Calves dropping, bees swarming, grass growing what seems like inches every day. Nothing to complain about, just that it’s a pretty intense time in the cycle of the farm.

So far it looks like four cows have calved without major complications. Only fifteen (or more) to go.

There is always a dance involving me and the mama cows, who tend to hide their calves in the first week after birth. Our farm is 20-some acres of pasture surrounded by hundred of acres of crops farmed by renters. Right now, the winter wheat is two or three feet high, and offers a tempting place for a calf to crawl off to and sleep away the day. The problem is that the pasture and the crops are separated by a single electric wire. Sometimes the calves scoot under the wire, and the mamas are left on the other side.

Often the cows get agitated by this situation, but just as often they’re cool with it. There has only been one time when a cow has lost her calf, but I am always worrying that will happen. I try to keep track of the calves twice a day, and sometimes have to follow the cows I know have given birth. Sometimes I’ll get lucky when they stare in the direction of where the calf is hidden, but other cows are cool customers. What? A calf? There’s no calf around here! I have known cows that will look in another direction to throw ME off.

I don’t want to call my tracking wasted effort, but sometimes it is. By dusk, cows and calves are usually together, and the babies gambol gaily (never used that phrase before, but it’s apt) and the mamas call for them with their low moo, which quickly becomes a bellow if the calves aren’t paying heed.

***

 

Apparently, Andre the Giant was born 70 years ago yesterday.

Brush with fame anecdote #201542a323:

Of all the famous folks I waited on when I worked at L’Hotel Sofitel in Bloominton, Minnesota–and that includes the Stones, the Eagles, the Cars, Kenny Loggins, and televangelist Rex Humbard (lousy tipper)– Andre was by far the coolest. He sat by himself in the no smoking section, and ordered two main courses (saucisses de Toulouse aux pommes), three orders of Profiteroles, and four triple cognacs…. I still marvel at the size and beauty of his snakeskin cowboy boots …

***

Just need to share this incredible photo, which came up on the often terrific Facebook Old Minneapolis group:

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The subject is Sherwin Linton, who has been performing folk, country, rockabilly cowboy and gospel music in the Upper Midwest (and for some time nationally, touring with Roy Acuff) for sixty years. His own annotation for the photo is priceless:

There is an amazing thing about this photo. t I did this routine frequently in 1958 at The Rail Inn Tavern on Central avenue in Minneapolis.. As you look at the photo the customers at the bar were like “Ho Hum. here he goes again. Some goofy guy with outlandish cowboy boots dancing up and down the bar playing a guitar upside down. He better not spill my pitcher of beer”.

 

RIP Guy Clark: Annus horribilis, cont.

The wicked year of 2016 has taken another great one from us.

A couple of years back, John Spong wrote He Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, a terrific piece on Guy Clark as he looks back on what was an amazing life: full of art, strong friendships, lots of chemically enhanced fucking up, and dark, sad times when first Susanna’s and then Guy’s bodies gave out.

I’ve added three Clark songs that I personally adore to the end of this post. I can’t claim any special knowledge or insight into Clark. I’m just a fan, who was lucky to see him play once, with Townes Van Zandt at the Bottom Line around 1990. I listen to Texas Cooking, Old No. 1, and Boats to Build all the time, and I’m sad that he’s gone.

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Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden

But the Susanna Clark living upstairs when Sampson came to write scarcely resembled that woman. In the early 2000’s, reeling from the twin defeats of a debilitating back condition and the early death of her and Guy’s best friend, Van Zandt, she’d taken to bed. Though she eventually quit drinking, she upped her intake of pain pills to a point beyond lucidity, seldom leaving the bedroom or changing out of her white cotton nightgown. Then came lung cancer and her refusal to stop smoking. Through much of that time, until his own health turned south, Guy was her sole caregiver. When he went to the basement to work, she’d call on his cellphone and ask him to cook for her or sit and keep her company as she moved in and out of reason. On his walk to the stairs, he’d pass by that Polaroid. It was taken, he told visitors, one afternoon when he and Van Zandt were day-drunk and acting like assholes. She’d had enough and was ready to get as far from the two of them as she could. She stands center frame, arms crossed, glaring at the camera like she might make the photographer’s head combust.

Sampson’s line could only refer to that photo. Guy started into his writing ritual, spreading out sheets of draftsman’s graph paper and grabbing one of the music chart pencils he orders special from California. Methodically, he wrote in all caps, giving each letter its own box on the page.

My favorite picture of you
Is the one where it hasn’t rained yet
As I recall there came a winter squall
And we got soakin’ wet
A thousand words in the blink of an eye
The camera loves you and so do I
Click

“The whole song just kind of poured out,” Guy explained one afternoon a few months ago, sitting in the same workshop, holding the same photo. “I didn’t have to think too much other than to get it all down. Then I went upstairs, sat on the edge of the bed, and played it for her. She said she liked it, I guess. Whenever I wrote about her, she was always . . . I don’t know if ‘touched’ is the right word. She was always flattered. Usually she said, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ ”

That was particularly true in this instance. Susanna’s slide out of life lasted just another year and a half. In June 2012 her heart gave out, and it’s hard now to listen to “My Favorite Picture of You” and not think of it the way Guy describes “The Randall Knife,” as a cathartic piece of writing. Only he wrote “Randall Knife” a couple of weeks after his dad’s death. With Susanna, he tried to say goodbye while she could still hear him.

“I never was much for moaning and crying with this kind of experience,” he said. “This is the only way I know how to deal with it. To get it out.”

***

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“Game, Blouses!” My little piece ☮ Prince

I’m probably unable to process Prince’s passing with the requisite amount of grief, coming as it does hard on the heels of Merle Haggard’s death. Two of the brightest stars in my musical sky, gone. Poof. Within a couple weeks of each other. I am still stunned.

Well, hell. This week! This month! This year!

It’s been quite a cull of beloved musicians. Can’t recall a year like this. Maybe Fall of 1970, Jimi and Janis, which I only dimly remember. I delivered papers then, the now defunct afternoon daily Minneapolis Star. “Bad news on the doorstep” — I lived that! Weekly body counts in the bottom right hand counter.

I have a sense just about everybody will see Lonnie Mack‘s name on the list of Entertainers Who Died In 2016, and say, “Wait! When did THAT happen?” The day everybody was talking about Prince.

I must get this out of the way first: even though I am a massive fan and have had plenty of opportunities to see Prince, I never went to a show. Hockey rink shows are never ideal, and I probably still would not go out of my way to see anyone in a really big venue like that. But seeing Prince in the First Avenue Main Room! Where Purple Rain was shot! I passed on more than a few chances to see him in that fantastic venue.

To my shame I think I have to put it down to my Midwestern, penny-wise, dollar foolish attitude to spending money. Are you kidding me? They want fifteen bucks for those tickets. Figure in three or four Special Exports and I’ll be laying out thirty bucks for the night.

Yes, I am a garbage fan who never bothered to see Prince perform, but (I maintain) there remains some (pathetic) evanescent connection.

Prince and I were born 10 months and a couple miles apart in South Minneapolis. He went to Bryant, the public junior high school on East 38th Street. I went to Incarnation, a Catholic grade school a mile west on 38th St., on the other side of 35W, the freeway that pretty much separated black and white Minneapolis. I remember Bryant came to Incarnation once for a scrimmage, either in late ’72 or early ’73. The racial situation in Minneapolis was edgy at best, owing mainly to the ignorance of white people. Black Panthers! Rumors of black gangs riding around in cars with machine guns. (This predated Sign ☮ the Times (and crack) by more than a decade but looky! another connection — “high on crack totin’ a machine gun”). Of course our basketball team was nearly all white kids, terrified of black people in general, and more than a little intimidated by our opponents.

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Prince with his Bryant teammates.

In addition to their massive afros, and generally being much taller and/or muscular, I remember all the Bryant players wore boxers under their uniform shorts so they stuck out. A bit of sartorial flair that I had never seen before, or since. I wonder who might have started that trend?

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I was the Big Man on this team, 6′ 2″ and 140 lbs. dripping wet.

I told everyone for years, “I played basketball against Prince.” Now I am not sure I was on the court or if I (Blue team) was watching the Gold Team play Bryant. At any rate, I was there, but not necessarily playing. I did reach out to a couple of old Incarnation classmates on Facebook. My my best grade school pal, now a lawyer, wrote back, in very lawyerly terms, “This is consistent with my recollection”–meaning (I like to think) that we, the Blue team, were in fact the team that scrimmaged Bryant.  But, for what it’s worth, his memory was that we played at their gym, not ours. I also must add that he had no memory of the machine gun rumor, so that might have been my own individual racial panic dream.

Bryant mopped the floor with us of course. The core of their team went on to form a fabled Minneapolis Central team that was undefeated but lost in the region finals to North. I was at THAT game, for sure, at the old Met Center. Johnny Hunter, Pastor and Founder of First Community Recovery Church, had the game of his life.

I always thought Prince didn’t play in high school, but today I entered a few obvious search terms and learned that Prince indeed played at Central, at least up until his sophomore year. Al Nuness, a legendary player in his own right for the Golden Gophers, was Prince’s coach for the sophomore squad. Nuness told the StarTribune Prince was “a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn’t grow.”

Basketball’s loss was everyone else’s gain. That seems obvious now.

Over the years I’ve come across more than a few doubters of my modest connection to Prince, and even more who could not believe that the diminutive Prince had ever played competitive basketball, so when the fantastic Chapelle Show Charlie Murphy bit came out, I felt vindicated.

Prince really enjoyed that sketch, apparently.

***

UPDATE: I wasn’t going to go there, to mention the other famous music person of my youth (and in fact of my twenties, when we lived across the street from each other), but I just read what Paul Westerberg wrote about Prince and it makes what just about everything everyone else wrote kind of pointless. Heartfelt, observant, poignant and funny as hell. What you would expect.

The first time I met him was at a urinal at a nightclub in St. Paul. There he was, and I said, “Hey, what’s up?” And he answered, “Life.” One word: “life.” And I can’t say that we went on to be pals. But we did record a lot at Paisley Park, and he became comfortable enough to grace us with his presence, not bejeweled and not dressed up. He’d be wearing maybe his jammies and sweat pants or maybe a pear of jeans and sneakers. He could sort of just hang out. He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know. That’s the treasure that we got, to be able to sit in the big atrium where you’re taking a break and Prince shuffles by in his slippers and makes some popcorn in the microwave. My sister’s a disc jockey, and he would pass by and say, “Tell your sister hi for me.” People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I’m gonna cry.

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Paul Westerberg in the 1973 yearbook. All the way on the left.

This one’s for the workin’ man

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Any god or demigod worth a damn comes in multiple manifestations. You got your young, sneering Elvis and your sequined jumpsuit and scarf Elvis; you got your baby Jesus and your bearded sandal-wearing Jesus–and even your t-shirt and tuxedo-wearing Jesus. So it is with any figure who exists in a space between man and myth. Jesus, Elvis, Merle. You could certainly come up with more names, but those three for sure.

I’ve been thinking and worrying a lot about the only one of that trinity still living, who has gone into the hospital and cancelled his March tour dates. The 78-year-old Merle Haggard, indefatigable musical genius and ornery old American treasure, ranks up there with the coolest human beings on the planet, but I also have a soft spot and fascination for the just-starting-out Merle. You can get a sense of what I mean in these two vintage shots, part of a series of weird outtakes from his Branded Man album that is reproduced in the excellent booklet accompanying the Bear Family Untamed Hawk box set.

untamedhawkYou might expect the handsome unlined face, intense gaze, and the full head of hair, but might find surprising the urban attire, the windbreaker and the pointy-toed Cuban-heeled boots. At the very onset of his career, Merle seemed to have kicked back hard against any sort of “country” image. “I’ve never been in the hills in my life. I’m a city boy. But I’m a real country singer,” quoth the notes from Untamed Hawk, unsourced alas.

On a recent drive to and from Nashville (a place Haggard notoriously hated fwiw) I became obsessed with “Today I Started Loving You Again,” spare and minimal but absolutely perfect: the simplicity of the loping guitar line; the echo accentuating the purity and ache of Hag’s voice (what a glorious instrument it was back then, before life and the road took away the higher part of his register); those accent harmonies, a genius musical idea that was apparently a gift from Buck Owens. Oh, and nailing those accent harmonies, none other than the former Mrs. Owens, then Mrs. Haggard, who was a bigger star than either of them when it all started, and somehow wound up “washin’ and ironin’ and pickin’ up” on the Haggard tour bus….

(That “washin’ and ironin'” line is from a wonderful Laura Cantrell song about Bonnie called “Queen of the Coast,” which I can’t recommend highly enough.)

Unbelievably, TISLYA was a b-side to “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” which was a #1 hit on the country charts, but not much thought of now. TISLYA is now one of his best-loved songs, and it nags me to think it might have been an afterthought. A b-side? I wonder if Haggard and the guys in the studio know they had something special, or did they just record TISLYA as another song to fill up an album. Haggard brought his band into the Capitol Tower for 21 sessions in 1968. The core band of Roy Nichols, Bonnie Owens, Jerry Ward, Roy Burris, George French, and Norman Hamlett, sometimes joined by Glen Campbell, Billy Mize, and James Burton. It was a period of ridiculous creativity, and it might have been hard for the musicians to separate the great from the ordinary. Making immortal music was just a day’s work.

I had a pain that went all the way around from my belly button all the way around to my back.” Haggard told Rolling Stone in February. “I asked the doctor, ‘What was that pain?’ He said, ‘It was death.'”

It’s the second time this year he’s had to check in to sort out his pneumonia. I can only hope, maybe even pray, Hag kicks death’s ass one more time.

Merle or Bob, Marcia or Laurie

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Apparently, Bob Dylan gave a speech the other night that was generally well received, but made headlines for a couple of digs Mr. Zimmerman directed at some of his musical peers. Dylan said some condescending things about Leiber & Stoller and Tom T. Hall and had this to say about Merle Haggard:

“[He] didn’t even think much of my songs. I know he didn’t. He didn’t say that to me, but I know way back when he didn’t. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs,” Dylan said. “Together Again, that’s Buck Owens. And that trumps anything else out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens or Merle Haggard, if you had to have somebody’s blessing, you can figure it out.”

This is a pretty juvenile thing, if you ask me. But who doesn’t like a good manufactured controversy? Alas, Merle did not take the bait.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s I remember all the false binaries of the day. The great fault lines: Beatles or Stones, Lennon or McCartney, Ginger or Mary Anne, MARCIA BRADY or LAURIE PARTRIDGE!!!! Was this kind of thinking symptomatic of adolescence or did it have something to do with the era itself? Maybe it is something in Boomer DNA?

One can only speculate what went through Dylan’s mind when he chose to call out the only living songwriter whose body of work eclipses his (and hey, maybe that’s the reason right there).  Here’s my blinding glimpse of the obvious for everybody: You don’t have to choose one or the other.  You can have your Haggard and Dylan too! Still, it’s a little saddening to have any kind of harsh words between these two Giants of American Song.

Allow me to imagine this dream scenario: Dylan, seeing his words in print and realizing they were a bit harsh, reaches out to Haggard and they make a record together. I see an opportunity here.

***

While we’re on the subject of the Merle, want to share this fascinating find from a 1972 documentary (terrible quality, alas) featuring Haggard wandering through an abandoned labor camp. What swagger the dude had back then!

a stick a stone

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The past couple of days I’ve been playing “Águas de Março” over and over again.

Monday was the four-year anniversary of the passing of David Campbell, drummer, bon vivant, lover of life and good friend to so many.

“Listening to Elis & Tom today,” commented Erica, one of Dave’s many musical collaborators, on a Facebook post featuring an old photo of Dave. I liked that idea, and set aside some time to listen. I kept being drawn back to this absolutely amazing video of Elis Regina and Tom Jobim vocalizing and harmonizing in ways that seem impossible for mere mortals. It appears they did this in a single take! Remarkably, Elis keeps that cigarette going the whole time; understandably, Jobim collapses when it’s over.

“Águas de Marςo” was among the more memorable songs on a cd of brasilero music Dave burned for me not long before he died. He was passionate about that music, and let it inhabit his whole being.

I say “Águas de Marςo” was memorable, but I didn’t really give it a proper listen until yesterday. I googled around for translations and found the lyrical poetry jaw-droppingly great. I can’t really think of a poem or song, in any language, that gently cascades (literally, it cascades) from simple concrete images to profound, and profoundly melancholy, musings on life, loving life, decay, renewal.

É pau, é pedra,
é o fim do caminho

A stick, a stone,
The end of the road

***

And the riverbank talks
of the waters of March,
It’s the promise of life
in your heart, in your heart

A stick, a stone,
The end of the road,
The rest of a stump,
A lonesome road

A sliver of glass,
A life, the sun,
A knife, a death,
The end of the run

For what it’s worth, the simple elegance of the lyrics called to mind two disparate works, both extraordinary in their own way–Margaret Wise Brown’s The Quiet Noisy Book and Ronnie Lane’s Stone. See if you agree. I’m pretty convinced of it.

quiet noisy book (1)

I was kind of taken by surprise to hear (in an out-of-the-blue Facebook message from an old friend), that it had been four years since Dave died.

That friend, Marie, now works as an architect in Paris. Paris! I almost shouted out when I  read that, at the same time fretting about my rather non-glamorous list of duties for the day, having to get outside and feed the chickens and prepare my sad cattle pen for another attempt to keep my cattle from escaping the trailer. (A week ago, two steers had literally leapt out of the pen with the stunning power and form of steeplechase horses).

I ventured that Paris must be an amazing place to live and work, and Marie didn’t disagree, but hastened to add:

But most of the time the weather here is horrible. Damp winters, grey, never cold enough to make it feel like winter

My reply:

have the same complaints about Kentucky winters, which are usually never quite cold enough to deserve the name. gorgeous here now though. Overwhelmed by fecundity.

I think she thought that was sort of funny. and closed our chat by riffing on my choice of words, “I will leisurely peruse your fecundity photos later … at work at the moment.”

And really, at this time of year in central Kentucky, well, that is a pretty good word, Fecundity. I’ve been catching a swarm of bees nearly every day for the past two weeks, can barely keep up with the mowing, and my cattle, well, they have been very frisky in the cold weather. While cutting out those steers last week, I had trouble coaxing the bull out of the pen. He was keenly interested (as were some of the mature calves) in an orange cow that miscarried last spring. He was so interested that he attempted the deed not once but twice right there in broad daylight. I was scandalized, and only just managed to get out of the way, but was glad to see he was capable of that sort of exertion (he is a rather passive bull most times). And had to make the mental note to haul that orange cow off to sell. Still in heat after being with a bull for nearly four months, she wasn’t going to be calving this season (or any)…. It’s the way of the barnyard.

And the way of the world.

I hope my readers don’t find this weird that I return to the topic of Dave once again. I am moving on and living my life, which is full and wonderful. I also hope it’s not weird to say that, like all the people who’ve gone and died on me, he comes back in dreams. Fairly regularly. We have a chat about where he has been and how long he’s been away. Sometimes it makes sense, but not always. There is often some sort of separation, but nothing really traumatic. I’ve never really had my dreams analyzed, but to me it seems like this is what they are for. I wake up, feeling the loss, but also feeling we’ve reconnected somehow.

Less and less do I think with absolute grief about the loss of a friend, or my dad, brother or mother. It’s more like, They’ve gone to a place where I’m going too, in no particular hurry.

A scratch, a lump,
It is nothing at all

É o mistério profundo,
é o queira ou não queira

 

Good things on the Internet: swingin’ sixties and seventies edition

Here, presented without comment, a selection of images from what in my humble opinion is one of the Best Blogs Ever.

Just. Go. Here.

Liz Eggleston’s impeccably and indefatigably curated collection of sixties and seventies images–the glorious, the tacky and the gloriously tacky–mainly from her own scans of British and French magazines, is an unspeakably great treasure. Her focus is on the British Boutique movement, but she confesses to being inspired by “the weirder, even seedier, aspects of popular culture.” This is the kind of amateur (in the French sense) labor of love that the pre-listicle era Internet promised, but really didn’t deliver….

 

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annacat

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Getting “countrier than thou” about “artificial redneck morons”

Can’t explain exactly why I’ve been silent here for so long, or why I’m finally prodded into action by this (uncharacteristically) dumb Charles Pierce reaction to the “Obamacare by Morning” schtick at the CMAs the other night.

To these lyin’ eyes, Brad and Carrie’s routine looks like a fairly safe, innocuous jab at a much-discussed current event. And clever. Both in the wordplay and by the fact that it butters up featured CMA guest George Strait, who doesn’t always turn up for awards shows.

Its attitude is pretty closely aligned to this (also very funny) bit from the Daily Show:


But Brad and Carrie really set something off in Pierce:

Let’s forget, shall we, that the act is working gloriously in places like Kentucky, but that places like Tennessee, which hosted the yearly gathering of artificial redneck morons, have decided to sabotage the act because Tennessee insists on electing idiots, which is why there are a lot of the problems for Jethro and Zelda Mae to make sport of on the electric teevee. Let’s also forget how much an actual Medicaid expansion would help in all those Southern states where these posers sell records and that have governors who suddenly find themselves allergic to Free Money (!) Let’s also forget that none of the make-believe goobers on stage last night ever are going to have to make the decision between medicine for the kids and food on the table.

Not a lot to disagree with here on the substance (though I might be cautious about proclaiming  “the act is working gloriously in places like Kentucky” until those enrolled actually try to get their claims processed), but what is notable (beyond the embarrassing attempt at country diction) is the contemptuous “How Dare They” vibe. “Jethro and Zelda Mae.” Wow. “Make-believe goobers”! Pierce knows as well as anyone the glaring issues with ACA, and Jon Stewart’s much more critical satire goes unremarked, but country singers making fun of what is looking (sadly) to be a prototypical product of 21st century (neo)liberalism is just too much for Mr. Pierce to bear.

First the ad hominem, and then the revealing obiter dictum.

Let’s forget all of that and concentrate on the main issue — which is that I think modern country music sucks gigantic bowls of monkey dick. It is, weight for age, the phoniest genre of music since Pat Boone was ripping off Little Richard. Most of what is celebrated as “country” these days is simply bad rock and roll played by people who look like they flunked the audition for a Night Ranger tribute band. I mean, Taylor Fking Swift is already a “legend,” and Patsy Cline would have eaten her on toast.

Stop the presses.  Boston-based writer derides current country music as fake, knows what REAL country music is.

Pierce then moves on to the musical question “You know what coutry music is?” and name checks Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Harvard Divinity School dropout Gram Parsons. I’m a fan of all of these guys, but every one of them is a middle-class white dude, applying a bookish veneer to the country genre. To Pierce’s credit he does mention Loretta Lynn, but doesn’t link to any of her iconic songs (you know, the ones a Jethro or Zelda Mae might know), but to “Van Lear Rose,” from the all-over-the-place album she did with another slummer, hipster Jack White.

Which is a little weird. And where am I going with this exactly?

A first bash: patronizing east coast writer’s take can be summarized as: these rubes don’t know what they want (the ACA), or even what they like (debased country music, not the “real” stuff), and they sure as shit don’t know what’s good for them. There’s a lot of the crazy in Southern-identified folks mistrust of Yankee superciliousness, but sometimes there’s some justification….

Country music left its rural roots behind at least as far back as the (then-maligned, now celebrated) countrypolitan era. It’s been a suburban thing for half a century, so the Jethro and Zelda Mae jibe is kind of out of the blue. Are Brad and Carrie trying to act like hicks? Does Carrie Underwood have her teeth blacked out? Not exactly. Say what you will about her outfit here but … not exactly. (OK. Paisley does wear a cowboy hat. It’s a Nashville thing, a shorthand connection to country’s real country (distant) past. Also, a godsend for artists with receding hairlines.)

Ian Crouch’s dispatch in the New Yorker, while still a tad glib, at least indicates that he actually saw the CMAs and didn’t just fly off the handle because OMG these rubes were making fun of Obamacare.

And the music itself, as always, has one foot in respectability and the other in foolishness. The best-selling country album in the United States right now is a Christmas collection recorded by the family from “Duck Dynasty.” One of the tracks, “Away in a Manger,” features the vocals of Alison Krauss. It’s still a weird swamp down there in Nashville.

Weird swamp indeed. And it has always been so. As someone who listens to a lot of country music, both old (“authentic”) and new (“bogus”), I have a lot of problems with contemporary music trends, but beg to differ with the notion that today’s country stars are talentless hacks. All of them are in possession of major chops, as players, singers or writers (or all three) or they wouldn’t be on the CMA stage rubbing elbows with Vince Gill.

Random anecdote: I recently had a quick overnight visit to Nashville. Three friends and I went out to see some music. Being cheap–we only went to free bars, –and old–our night started at 5 and ended before midnight–, we were exposed to the absolute bottom tier of Nashville talent (it was a Sunday night too) but I found it pretty remarkable that everybody at that level could really play and sing. There are tens of thousands of full-time musical strivers between these cover musicians and the Carries, Brads, and yes, Taylors. Country is another classic American winner-take-all, long-shot business–like the movies, pro sports, and fashion–but the problem is never the talent. The business of Nashville is just like those other show biz machines. It mercilessly molds artists into a template that is predictable and sells. But the talent shows through, it always has. Personally, this is why I pay attention to any pop culture: genius, of some sort, rising above an overly rigid framework. The auteur theory of country music, to get all grad schoolier than thou.

A common tactic of those who argue for a false Golden Age of anything is to set up a dubiously intense competition between artists of yore and the poseurs of today. So “Taylor Fking Swift is already a ‘legend,’ and Patsy Cline would have eaten her on toast”. I disagree. If Patsy and Taylor had been contemporaries, they would have collaborated dozens of times.

To be even more contrary, I would go so far as to say that we are in the midst of a Golden Age of Nashville, for female singers and songwriters, at least. In thirty years, a crusty writer will spit when mentioning the current crop of fake country talent, fix you with a steely gaze, jab a bony finger in your chest and say, “Now Miranda Lambert. There was a true badass country singer.” (And so she is)….
 

Once again stuck for a way to end this, am bailed out by the great Robbie Fulks, who has noticed the tendency of Yankees to preach to country folks what real country is. I love the weird and wonderful adjectival mouthful below, and think Pierce might find himself somewhere in there. He certainly will see his reflection in the opinionated, overalled Bostonian (cue to 2:22).

Not a hillbilly dilletante, fair weather hick, demi-clod, faux po’folks, well-readneck…
Robert-E.-come-lately hayseed wanna-be undercover Yankee…
Mississippi Ph. D., Alabamateur, 50% less Tarheel armchair Arkansan