Category Archives: country music

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”.

 

This one’s for the workin’ man

merlejumpingafence

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.

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

2012: The Year in YOLO

I gave in this year to pop music and am not at all ashamed to admit my “best songs of 2012 (The Big List)” features a number of songs that are unapologetically pop and (to my ears at least) awfully good.

Maybe it’s having young kids who listen to the radio All The Time, maybe it’s because there’s an unusual quantity of good pop songs out there, maybe this is just another manifestation of my own contrariness. But I find myself wondering again and again: What’s Not to Like?

So, yes! yes! to Taylor and Carly Rae and P!nk and Xtina and Psy and Pitbull and Adam Levine and Kelly and Ke$ha and on the country side, that Little Big Town is pretty freaking catchy. I never thought I would like a song so good that name-checks Coors, but there you go. Perhaps I have been living in the South for too long.

For those whose tastes are so refined, they simply can’t abide listening to things enjoyed by the rabble (you know who you are) I have made a slightly condensed playlist that cuts out the pop mega-hits. It’s still a good list.

But I felt I had to go ahead and choose my favorite songs of the year. Hell is other people’s playlists, a wise person once said, so here, for better or worse, a dozen or so good tunes from YOLO Year of Our Lord 2012.

Ke$sha haters can suck it. This is an instant classic. It makes me wish that she would have made Warrior more along the lines of her original (stated) intent: more sleazy 70s rock, more guitars, less pop, fewer synths. As the man in A Hard Day’s Night said, perhaps this is “an early clue to the new direction.” I can only hope. “Sweet-ass mullet,” ftw.

The Youtube vid for “Everything is Embarrassing” has just surpassed a million hits, so this treads perilously close to Too Mainstream, but  the timelessness* of this song  can’t be denied.
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*or perhaps perfect evocation of 90s production values

Apparently I am a sucker for songs with “Everything” in the title. Hard to separate the song from the beautiful video.  Old School in the best sense.

A duet teaming a young rappper born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Kurtis Blow, the Bronx.  I love this. Why isn’t this getting ten million hits on Youtube??

Pure pop confection that sounds even more ethereal in Japanese for some reason.

Feisty, sexy, funny–three things you really don’t expect from mainstream country these days.

Seems like this song has been around for more than a year. Never get tired of it, though.

The reissue of “Pearl” came out in 2012, in case you wonder why this song makes the list. Janis’ crazy cackle shows she knew she blew the take right at the beginning. But on and on it goes, and the world is better for it. The ad libs are absolutely priceless. Amy Adams to star as Janis in a movie coming soon? Don’t quite know how I feel about that.

My son’s gang posts videos of their trampoline tricks online. His friend used a Brother Ali song in one. Instead of getting a cease-and-desist from a company lawyer, he got a “cool, bro” from Brother Ali himself. That prejudices me in the man’s favor but this entire album is great. Angry, political, intensely human.

In awe of this entire thing. Sixteen definitely ain’t enough. “How’s he God if he lets Lucifer let loose on us?”

As though someone discovered a cassette featuring Gram Parsons gigging with the Dead, circa American Beauty.

The most YOLO song of a YOLO year.

“I’ve lived at the very end of what must have been a wonderful country”

I followed a link on tumblr first thing this morning and came to such a trove of Merle Haggard lore my first thought was, “Holy shit! The great man has died.” But no, it’s just a very good, passionate fan site.

It linked to an Esquire Q&A from 2007 I had never seen. It’s great. Here is an extremely large chunk of it.

I’ve lived at the very end of what must have been a wonderful country.

They’ve left the redwoods up alongside the highway so we’ll think they’re all there. But go up in an airplane and you’ll see that they’ve clear-cut everything behind.

The kids just don’t know how big the tear on the rip-off was. If they had any idea, I believe they could do something about it. But it may be too late. We’ll see. They’re smarter. They can talk to one another. I don’t look for a politician to bullshit his way in this time.

When I was nine years old, right after my dad died, my mother got me some violin lessons with this big heavyset lady. It took nine lessons before this lady said to my mother, “You’re wasting your money. He’s got too good an ear. He’s not going to fool with learning to read when he can play something that he hears on the radio.” When I heard her say that, I knew I had something.

We weren’t thieves by nature. Pranksters. Practical jokers. We were without a car one time, Dean Holloway and I. We just went out and started borrowing cars. Sometimes we’d bring ’em back. Put gas in ’em. Clean ’em up. Leave a little note: THANKS FOR THE CAR. Like the Phantom.

I’m in a very small percentage of people ever in the joint who beat it. It’s like 2 percent of 2 percent. If you’ve ever been to the joint, you’re going back.

[snip] …

Freedom is what prohibition ain’t.

I probably had as bad a sex urge as anybody when I was younger. I remember an old guitar player, Eldon Shamblin, told me, “When you get pussy off your mind, you can go ahead and learn something.” Isn’t that great?

Willie Nelson’s the one who told me the reason it costs so much to get divorced is because it’s worth it.

I remember going to a dance when I was a kid — my older brother took me in. Roy Nichols was playing. My brother said, “Hey, there’s a little guy in there playing guitar. He don’t have to pick cotton or go to school.” Roy Nichols became my idol on the guitar. Many years later, he went on to play for me for half price. But he and I could never look directly at each other. I never knew why. At first, I thought it was because I admired him too much. But it was Roy, too. Anyway, late in his life, Roy had a stroke. Paralyzed him on one side. Right down the middle. Half of his nose he could blow, the other half was dead. After his stroke, I went over to Roy’s house. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Look here: I love you.” I got chills. He said, “That old shit went down the hole with this stroke.”

They got laws for the white man and laws for the black man — we all know that.

There’s more. Here is the link to the original. And again, here is the link to 190 Proof.

Country music and suicide

Just came across this on my twitter feed this morning:

This article assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates. Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates.

Hmm. “Country Music.” How can you generalize about a genre that encompasses  both bluesy, soulful, melancholy Merle Haggard AND upbeat country heartthrob Kenny Chesney?

I would like to suggest a further experiment.  Expose one group of lab rats to nonstop booze and heartbreak tunes.  Williams, Jones, Haggard, Cash. The other group gets to listen to nothing but the  life-affirming paeans to domestic fidelity and small-town life that dominate contemporary country.

See which rats try to claw their way out of their cages first….

 

If we make it through December

 

Reading the news, and it’s all bad

  • “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”
    –Mayor Mike
    . See also this
  • “No one is arguing for rule of law as we once knew it. Rather, it’s a fight between those espousing martial rule of law and those espousing unilateral intelligence ops.”
    –Marcy Wheeler, The Rule of Martial Law Vs. the Unitary Spookery
  • According to the study’s authors, the United States’ poor performance and relatively slow improvement compared with other nations may be attributable to “the lack of universal coverage and high costs of care.”
    U.S. Ranks Last Among High-Income Nations on Preventable Deaths
  • “Still, the world is watching a geopolitical game of chicken: Western powers are raising the stakes, threatening economic warfare and even kinetic military action unless Iran backs down; Iran believes it can withstand whatever the West and Israel is plausibly going to throw at it, and is firing symbolic warning shots of its own. To avoid an escalation that could lead to war, both sides would have to be offered acceptable off-ramps. But that takes diplomacy, which isn’t exactly in vogue in Western relations with Iran, right now.”
    –Tony Karon, After the Embassy Attack: Are Iran and the West Lurching Toward War?

Ole Ole

Were you familiar with Ole Rasmussen and His Nebraska  Cornhuskers? I was not, not really.

Maybe I’m guilty of being sentimental, but stumbling upon something like this, a shit-hot version of “Stay a little longer” by a band I had never heard of, except an accidental glance at the liner notes on the Swing West! compilation I borrowed from the library, ripped, and then forgot about…. well, it just makes me think that there was a time in America when there were acts this good playing in bars and nightclubs across the country, in small towns and medium-sized meccas like Bakersfield. Once upon a time, America really rocked, and there were dozens if not hundreds of regional scenes. All featuring musicians with major choppage.

Now, by way of contrast,I present to you Exhibit B, the great Willie sharing the stage with a pair of, shall we say, lesser talents. I think a case can be made for Mr. Keith, but the other guy…. check out from 1:00 to 1:10 and, well, that’s just how far we’ve fallen….

Higher than a cat’s back

Music cognoscenti know: Buck Owens was the bee’s knees–in spite of the fact that in his later years, there was a certain clownish aspect to his act. You could make the case that Hee Haw was on the air for a little too long. But in his prime, Buck was one cool country cat.

Here are a couple of clips of the glory years of the Buckaroos, featuring Don Rich, Buck’s guitar man and harmonist (“he sings higher than a cat’s back”). Rich died in a motorcycle crash in 1974, and Buck was never the same.

Rich opened for Elvis at the age of 16, and had a regular gig at Steve’s Gay 90’s Restaurant in South Tacoma when Buck Owens hired him as fiddler. Fender gifted him a Champagne Sparkle Telecaster, and he could really wear a Nudie suit.

That distinctive accent harmony was a defining feature of the Bakersfield Sound. Merle Haggard, who performed in Buck’s band for a while (and who named them the Buckaroos) also made amazing use of it. (Check out the Bonnie Owens part in the studio version of “Today I Started Loving You Again”–alas, I could not find this online.) Merle and Buck had a pretty contentious history together (including sharing a wife, though not simultaneously), so I would not be surprised if they both took credit.

I think of how musically genius these boomtown hicks were, when listening to the New Pornographers’ Adventures in Solitude. That first verse with the spare accent harmonies. Pure Bakersfield.

* While I’m digressing on the subject of criminally overlooked collaborators of the Bakersfield Era, I would recommend a listen to Laura Cantrell’s gorgeous, heartbreaking song about Bonnie Owens:

1985 Back to the Future

Emusic now has the Pogues catalog, which is cause for celebration and for me cause for a rather vivid flashback to 1985, the year of Rum, sodomy and the lash.

I found the wiki on the year fascinating and foreign, yet strangely familiar. (And yes, the original Back to the Future was based in that year.)

Herewith, the brilliant Pogues classic, “A pair of brown eyes,” and an entertaining, not particularly linear video by Alex Cox (police state! Thatcher!), along with a few other carefully culled selections from that year. Presented without further comment.

PAIR OF BROWN EYES

FROM ST. KILDA TO KINGS CROSS

CLOSE TO ME

LOVE IS ALL AROUND

THE CHAIR