The River's Badge

Friday, May 26, 2017

1968 - Transitions

By 1968 my trauma had mostly passed. I was finishing the eighth grade, about to enter high school. I had a best friend. I began the year awkward and pimply, but began to metamorphose into kind of a cute girl, skinny with a dark red bob (and the ever-persistent bangs hiding my eyes). Staring into my bathroom mirror in the mornings, however, I was certain I was the most hideous creature on the face of the earth. I now had my own (private) room, away from judging eyes, so I sometimes carried my battery-powered record player into the bathroom with me as I applied dark eyeliner (with the upward swoop at the corners) and green eye shadow.

My new best friend was firmly ensconced in the bosom of country music and I was trying, really trying; but I wasn't yet ready to give up my lifelong rock 'n roll fix. I don't abandon old friends easily. However, what I'd always loved about rock/pop was that it was joyous. "Do You Believe In Magic?" Music wasn't joyous anymore. It was so, so serious. Granted, there was the odd novelty song, like "Yummy Yummy Yummy", but all the true artists were chronically depressed.

This was the number one song from 1968, and I'm not saying it went on too long, but well, yea, it did kind of go on too long. Catchy, though. Paul was known for writing catchy songs:

In 1968 instrumentals could still top the charts. That would soon end. What began with "Wipe Out" in the early sixties saw its zenith toward the end of the decade. There was Mason Williams with "Classical Gas" (an unfortunate title), and there was this one, that my dad really liked:

I preferred this, as it was more dramatic:

The Lemon Pipers is quite the hippie-ish name, isn't it? It doesn't mean anything. What's a lemon piper? Some kind of snake? In the sixties a lot of songs were written about tambourines. Honestly, though, how long would you stand around watching some guy beat a tambourine against his leg? I guess he could raise his arm in the air and shake it around theatrically, but still. Inexplicably, this was one of the top singles of 1968:

The 1910 Fruitgum Company is not a name one hears every day. I guess 1968 had to include some tunes for the pre-teens, too; not just songs for the angsty doom-and-gloom gluttons. I like this video because the band seems thoroughly embarrassed, as they should be, to be singing:

My dad's old juke box claimed a dusty corner of the garage. He'd since upgraded his bar to a rainbow-splashed Wurlitzer. We kids loved that juke box (or maybe it was just me). We (or I) played this record a lot:

My older brother attended National Guard camp for two weeks each summer. He'd enlisted in the Guard to avoid the draft. Viet Nam played on every boy's mind in 1968. Nobody wanted to go. They would do whatever it took to not get bundled onto that plane. My brother had gotten married in 1967, but that was no out. Nixon was taking anyone and fight a war that killed thousands of American kids for no Godly reason. The war was something most of us didn't even think about, because it had droned on and on, on our TV screens for what seemed like forever. We became inured of the killing and maiming. Viet Nam was a fact of life. Of course, we were kids, so we didn't really understand.

My sister-in-law asked me to stay with her while my brother was at Guard camp, so we doubled up in her bed. I wasn't used to actually living in a town, so I made the most of my freedom during the day, strolling downtown to Dahmer's Music and making pilgrimages to St. Joe's Catholic Church (I was pseudo-religious at age thirteen). One night, my sister-in-law woke me up and said, "They're talking about Kennedy being shot. I thought at first they meant John Kennedy, but it's's Robert!" In the middle of the night, I had no comprehensible words, but the two of us stayed awake for a couple of hours, listening to the news coverage.

This song kind of sums up that summer for me: 

Tommy James was a writer of creepy pop songs. Not creepy as in, a slasher hiding around the corner, but creepy as in, who likes this stuff? "You put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say..." He did write one song, though, that will live forever at wedding dances and corner taverns across the USA. I can't put my finger on what it has, but it has something. A good beat? Repetition? The fact that the crowd can willy-nilly change the lyrics to something mildly obscene? You be the judge:

Another oddity of 1967-68 was the big balladeer. Gary Puckett had five Top 100 tracks in 1968. Five! Gary recorded smarmy songs that were all surreptitiously about sex, which at age thirteen I was a bit uncomfortable with. I guess it was music to have affairs by...or something. I was an innocent -- more kid than woman. So, while Gary was a great singer, his songs, to me, were a bit disturbing:

You and I both know that you haven't heard this next song enough; not enough on TV commercials; not enough on sixties documentaries. So as a public service, I give you Steppenwolf:

The Grass Roots don't get the credit they deserve. Theirs was the first rock concert I ever attended. "Let's Live For Today" is a classic. I bought the group's greatest hits LP. I guess it's not cool to like the band. If it wasn't for The Office and Creed, no one would've given the group a second thought. Music fans can be snobs. The Grass Roots had a top single in '68 (and yes, that's Creed on the left):

It may have been network TV -- the big three networks were kind of lost when it came to rock and roll -- but they had variety shows to produce and they did want the "youngsters" to watch. Well, what choice did we have? Cable? Is that the cord that connects the television to the outlet? Five minutes to midnight, after George Gobel's comedy routine and Johnny's visit with Joan Embery from the San Diego Zoo, HERE ARE THE YOUNG RASCALS! It was a struggle to stay awake that long! And Dean Martin didn't want anything too "out there" for his boozy variety show. Flip Wilson had to throw in the random musical act to attract "the kids".  Voila! Tom Jones!

I had by this time dipped a toe in country music. I wasn't fully convinced, but I gave it my all. Unlike rock and roll, which my marrow had been steeped in for twelve-going-on-thirteen years, country music took some serious study to learn. I knew the basics -- "Heartaches By The Number" and "Tiger By The Tail", thanks to Mom and Dad; but honestly, I found a lot of country to be rather corny. It seems strange now that country music seemed so strange. Country long ago seeped into my bones and now it's wholly natural. Of course, I lived in the rock and roll realm for twelve years and the country world for about forty, so, yes, country is natural. Thanks, Alice. 

Even if one wanted to avoid country all together, they could not escape the dreaded crossover hit. The crossover didn't do much to redeem the reputation of country music, because the singles that crossed over were an amalgam of pop and strings and a vocalist with a southern accent, a la Glen Campbell. "What the hell is this 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' shit?" everybody would exclaim. My thought was, either be rock or be country. Make a decision. 

Which leads me to Tom T. Hall. I was unaware at the time that Tom T. Hall was a revered songwriter in Nashville. He had something unique -- and that was, he wrote songs that had no choruses. Now, generally, a song should have verses, a chorus, and ideally a bridge. Tom was having none of that. And that's why his songs, to this day, are like dirges. A songwriter needs to change things up a bit, which is where a chorus comes in. Otherwise, they go like this:

Da da da da da
Da da da da
Da da da da da
Da da da da

...for the whole damn song! 

Of course, the one country song that would cross over in 1968 was a Tom T. Hall creation, recorded by Jeannie C. Riley (there's something odd about all the middle initials, but I won't try to psycho-analyze). If it wasn't for the dobro, this recording would be even more banal than it already is.

Listen for the da da da da da's:

I remember this next single was a hit in the winter. I don't know why I remember that, but people's brains are wired to remember inconsequential things, like this one dessert I used to make all the time in the seventies, that had a Ritz Cracker crust and Cool Whip and chocolate pudding (it's better than it sounds). 

John Fred and His Playboy Band apparently sat down one night, stoned, and wrote these immortal words:

Judy in disguise, well that's what you are
Lemonade pies with a brand new car
Cantaloupe eyes come to me tonight
Judy in disguise, with glasses

It gets worse.  

But the strangest recording to become a hit song in 1968 and possibly, ever, was done by an actor who, honestly, couldn't sing. The song was written by good old Jimmy Webb, who brought us "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", among other disasters. Jimmy Webb gets lots of acclaim for being the quintessential songwriter, and he even wrote a book about songwriting. Don't be fooled. 

Actor Richard Harris:

Unlike Tom T. Hall's compositions, this next song actually had a chorus. And it's catchy. The Cowsills were the real-life version of The Partridge Family. Of course, one could never release a single called, "Indian Lake" today. But you'll find yourself singing along. That's what good pop songs do:

I've essentially exhausted the top hits from 1968. My memories of the year consist of snow, more snow, piles of snow. Being dropped off by the bus and slopping through the mounds of snow in my mini-dress and "fashionable" black rubber boots. Twisting the telephone cord as far into the hallway as it would reach, so as to conduct a private phone conversation after school about....nothing, really. Flicking through my homework; not giving a damn about things like math that made absolutely no sense. Chewing on my pencil, writing down answers to history questions in my blue spiral notebook. Drawing doodles in the margins. Wondering how any of this was of any importance to anyone at any time. 

I wanted to go out with a bang and sum up the year. Scanning the Top 100, the year wasn't all that great, in hindsight.

So, I chose this one:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sixty-Two -- And Music

I should be in a more reflective mood today, I suppose, since I have turned sixty-two. When my mom was forty, I thought she was ancient. Looking back, forty was actually pretty good. Every birthday is good, and bad, in its own special way. This year I decided to revel in it. I learned well the lesson (thanks Mom) to never call attention to myself. But I decided today to pay attention to myself. I'm pretty easy to please -- I turned on Sirius and searched my favorite channels for songs to mark the day. I found three that essentially sum up my weird musical history:

1. "It's A Beautiful Morning" by the Rascals
2. "I Wish I Could Fall In Love Today" by Barbara Mandrell
3. "Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen

(I danced in my chair to that last one.)

What have I learned this year?

Well, I learned that just when I thought music was all in the past, I still love it. Thank you, Sirius Radio. As I gaze about this room, I see approximately 300 CD's, which I never play. They've become part of the decor. In a bookcase in the hall sits all the albums I've possessed since the mid-sixties. I never ever toss one on the turntable. My external hard drive holds songs I really wanted and didn't have until Amazon offered me anything I ever wanted. I never click on my music player. It took Sirius to remind me that I still love music. I don't have to make any choices other than which of my favorite stations is playing a song I want to hear right now. Based on my Sirius experience, I estimate there are approximately 10,000 songs I really like - give or take a thousand. Of course, when one has been on this earth for sixty-two years, they accumulate a lot of favorites. And they forget a bunch of them.

I've learned that music is my best friend. It'll never have a snit and stomp off because of something I've said or didn't say. If I feel sad, music will accommodate me. If I feel like chair-dancing, shoot, music is right there egging me on. If I want to sing, music offers lots of harmonies, at least one of which I can latch onto.

Life's circle.

Right now on Sirius, The Shirelles are singing, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow". My big sister played that record in 1961. I was six years old and I remember seeing the red 45 spinning on her turntable.

"Oh, Pretty Woman" is playing now. Wow, that song, in 1964, was a revelation. I watched Roy Orbison in his sunglasses perform that song on the Lloyd Thaxton Show in my uncle's dark living room. Nineteen sixty-four essentially set my life's path.

Now I'm hearing "A White Sport Coat". The very first concert I attended was a Marty Robbins performance my mom took me to in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was maybe five? My mom urged me to go up after the show and get Marty's autograph, but I was too shy.

Most every song I hear dredges up a memory. I wonder sometimes how many memories I've lost that would be recovered if only the right song turned up on my Sirius playlist.

"Norwegian Wood" came from the best Beatles album of all time -- "Rubber Soul". If a voice seeps into one's soul, John Lennon's is the one for me. I think it's an organic thing. I can't explain it.

"Bye Bye Love":  Well, again, 1964. I had a little trio with my two cousins, and this was the only song I got to sing lead on. "There goes my baby..." I can't tell you how proud I was to be able to sing lead on that song.

It's too bad one can't make money knowing music inside and out, because I guess I would have the market cornered. Name a song and I can give you a dissertation on the state of the world when that song was popular. Unfortunately, it's a talent not much in demand. I'm still glad I have it, though.

So, as my birthday winds down, I figured I would post videos of the first three songs I listed in this post:

(Sorry if an ad plays before this song, but somebody (Bruce?) decided that ads before great videos were a good thing):

That one makes me happy, and it's a great finishing touch for today.

Through these sixty-two years I've also heard enough bad songs to know what good songs are. But even the bad songs evoke fond memories, if only because they made me laugh with friends.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Things My Mom Taught Me

My mom's been gone now for more than fifteen years. It doesn't seem that long. Occasionally I dream about her, but in my dreams she's always passing me by, on her way somewhere. She never stops to talk. If she did stop, I don't know what we'd talk about anyway.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. She was a severe woman, who only knew hard work. Mom was never sentimental. There was too much to do. When I was little and still hanging around the house, she didn't converse with me in the course of her household duties. I was just there, someone to vacuum around. I was never much of a talker anyway, so it didn't bother me. Moms didn't really talk to their kids back then, so my life wasn't a novelty. I lived inside my head and maybe she did, too; or else she was mentally ticking off her list of chores.

Really, that's what I remember most about my mom from my earliest memory until around age ten -- she worked. She cooked and baked and got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor; then squirted Klear floor wax on the linoleum and swiped it around with a sponge mop. She canned green beans and beets and she made jam. She weeded her huge garden and ran out with plastic pails when frost was in the forecast and plopped them atop the tender plants. She drove the grain truck alongside my dad's combine in harvest season. She made supper at ten o'clock at night for my dad and brother, after they'd come in, black-faced, from the fields; she squeezed wet clothes through her Maytag wringer washing machine in the basement, then hauled them up the creaky basement steps and pinned them on the clothesline. She ironed, even the sheets. She got pregnant, twice more, and still didn't slow down. Sunday picnics were no picnic for her. While the men sat in the shade of a cottonwood bullshitting and guzzling Grain Belt, she was in the hot kitchen pulling pies from the oven and boiling potatoes for potato salad. My aunts kibitzed with her and helped where they could. Any self-respecting housewife would not find herself outside lazing with the men, kicking back, puffing on a smoke. Women had defined roles and men had theirs. Weekdays, the high point of Mom's afternoon was sitting down at 12:30 to snatch a few minutes of As The World Turns.

Mom didn't have time or use for dreams.

She bore three babies long before I came along, most likely not a joyous surprise, and turned me over to my older sisters, who toted me around like a bald-headed baby doll. But, by the time I was eight, my sisters had moved out and we had two new babes in our household. I was self-sufficient. I colored and I played my record player upstairs in my bedroom. I was not Mom's helper in any sense of the word, although eventually I needed money of my own to purchase '45 records, so she made a deal with me: I'd get twenty-five cents a week for dusting the furniture and performing other non-taxing chores. I begrudgingly performed those tasks as seldom as I could get away with, but she forked over that quarter every Saturday, well aware I hadn't held up my end of the bargain. I was as lazy as Mom was hard-working.

My eventual role within the family unit was that of the "novelty". I had a tiny bit of musical aptitude and I was good at memorizing. Thus, I got to take music lessons and I brought home straight A's on my report cards. My teachers had me (and Mom) convinced I possessed a superior intellect. Only in hindsight do I realize that it was all a trick. I just remembered things well, plus my big sister had taught me how to read at age four, so I was miles ahead of everyone else in my class.

Although Mom didn't spend any quality time with me, she did teach me some lessons:

1. Don't steal.

I don't think I was even in kindergarten yet when I accompanied Mom to the corner grocery store - Nellie's. There were no supermarkets then; simply little stores that held everything a late fifties housewife would need. One Saturday, as Mom was writing out her check for twenty-one dollars to pay for a package of frozen fish sticks, a four-roll pack of Charmin, two loaves of white bread, a can of cherry pie filling, and various other odds and ends, I spied the candy bars on a shelf below the counter. I wanted one...or I took them. Rhodes scholar that I was, ensconced in the back seat of our Mercury, I commenced to chomping on one. Mom glanced back and was aghast. "Where did you get that?" she demanded. I had no plausible response."You're marching back inside and telling Nellie you stole them," she directed. She fished inside her purse and pulled out a couple of dimes, clamped them inside my tiny palm and pointed toward Nellie's front door. "I...stole these," I stammered, quivering in the presence of the aproned matron behind the register. I don't remember what Nellie said to me, but I remember my mortification. That summer Saturday was the first and last time I ever stole anything, ever.

2. "Don't embarrass me."

Throughout my adolescence, I gave my mom many opportunities to be embarrassed. My cousins and I had a little trio, borne of our shared music lessons, and we did appearances at nursing homes and parades and park band shells. I was a natural ham, so I became rather effusive during those performances. Until I spied Mom in the audience scowling at me, disapproval reddening her cheeks. So, I swallowed my show-off gene and retreated into the background; turned translucent, only my alto warble betraying my presence on the stage. You can be good, but don't let anyone know you think you're good, was Mom's message. To this day, I rein myself in when I sense I've gone too far. I self-censor. Because Mom told me to.

3. Keep your cards close to the vest.

I'm not sure Mom ever proffered an opinion in polite company. She was a master at gauging the room. She agreed with whatever sentiment dominated, offering an "I agree" or an "uh huh", to keep the conversation flowing. Oh, she had opinions - definite opinions - but those she saved for home. My lesson: Don't say what you're really thinking, because people will judge you; judge you harshly, and who needs that kind of grief? As I've grown older, I've forgotten that admonition a few too many times, and forgetting has not served me well.

As Mom grew older, she relaxed a bit. She never once stopped cooking and baking and cleaning, even when she could afford to hire someone to do those things for her. She either liked doing those things or they were so ingrained, she knew no other way of living.

In Mom's last years of life, she became someone I'd never before known -- a supportive mother. She and I did a few things together -- went to concerts, played bingo. After I moved out of state, she wrote me chatty letters. I would have liked to get to know this New Mom better, but time ran out. Maybe that's why I dream about her sometimes. I'm still yearning to get to know her, but she just breezes past me; signaling that she's someone who can't be known.

I never even knew that she loved music until she was in her later years. We could have shared that, but she kept it inside her. Close to the vest.

She was a good woman. She did the best she could.

That's all any of us can do.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Best Country Albums - Part 2

Since my last post, I've thought about other "Best" albums and wondered if there were any from an era other than the nineteen eighties. I've determined that eras are rather unfair. After all, as I've noted before, country albums were once simply a collection of one or two hit tracks combined with cover songs. I don't know if producers were lazy or they suffered from "we've always done it this way" disease. Most likely it was because country fans bought singles and albums were an afterthought -- a  way to put a pretty cover (in the case of female artists) on the rack and convince shoppers to buy the ninety-eight-cent '45 of "I Don't Wanna Play House". I bought a lot of Greatest Hits albums way back when, because other LP's were disappointing. A few artists pushed back -- mostly artists from Bakersfield. Some Nashville acts, too, transcended the status quo. Not many.

I've thought about how I even knew that certain albums existed at the time, and I realize it was because of WHO radio and Mike Hoyer. Mike was the overnight DJ on WHO in Des Moines, Iowa; and around two a.m. he'd slap an album on his turntable and play it all the way through. Touring acts would also show up in Mike's studio and perform songs live. In the sixties, it was Mike Hoyer and Ralph Emery on WSM who were the keepers of the country flame. And Bill Mack on WBAP in Fort Worth. Those three. That's all. My radio signal rarely caught WSM and I'd lie awake until three a.m. to try to catch WBAP. WHO, though, always came through loud and clear. That's how I knew what was what with real country.

All that said, I've decided to isolate "best" albums by the times in which they were recorded.

The Sixties

Ten years in country music is a long-ass mile. A lot changed in the sixties. Are we talking 1961 and Jimmy Dean or 1969 and Conway and Loretta? The sixties should actually be divided into the almost fifties/early sixties and the Merle Haggard slash Dolly Parton era. Nevertheless, here are some albums that were most likely the "best" of that time.

Here's the only video I could find, but trust me, this album was a cornucopia of superb country (I mean "country") songs:

Burning Memories is definitely a "best". Ray Price's album is one of my very, very favorites. I'm guessing it was released in 1965, smack dab in the middle of the schizophrenic sounds that assaulted our tender ears. Ray's smooth tenor was a soothing balm. And yet it tore at our hearts. I can find no live performances of any of the awesome tracks from this album, but give this a listen:

There was a time when we cheered live albums. Why? Maybe because Nashville sucked the soul out of every song it deemed to record and live albums were real life.

This live album was real:

Merle did impersonations and Bonnie flubbed the lyrics to her song and Merle said, "that's all right".

Merle live:

In the fifties, Patsy Cline and Faron Young and some other country stars performed at Carnegie Hall. That was considered curious. Apparently New Yorkers were too snobbish to listen to country music. Most were and are. That concert was most likely viewed as a novelty; something for the sophisticates to giggle about the next day. I don't know that any live recording exists of that concert. I personally would have loved it -- but I'm from the Midwest, after all.

About ten years later Buck Owens took a chance and showed up at Carnegie Hall with his Buckaroos. It's impossible to understate the importance of Buck Owens to country music in the sixties. There were two competing factions -- the "Nashville Sound", watered down "listen to us -- we're really not country!" and Bakersfield. Bakersfield won. One could argue that if not for Buck Owens, there wouldn't have been a Merle Haggard. It's been posited that Buck stole his songs from unknown songwriters. I don't know the truth. Regardless, Buck Owens' claim to fame is that he created a "sound". Crunchy telecasters, drums not buried; not muffled. Drums keeping the beat as they should, for the two-stepping couples in the honky tonks. Heavy on the steel, thank you. Alcohol and tears go hand in hand, and nothing cries like a steel guitar.

Here is "the sound", from the Carnegie Hall album:

Before I finish out the best of the sixties, here is one album that I would consider a "best".

Lynn Anderson, before she scooted on over to Columbia Records, recorded on a little-known label called Chart. One could argue that the move to Columbia was the best thing that ever happened to Lynn. After all, that's the label on which she recorded Rose Garden. I would postulate that in the move Lynn lost her soul. In the sixties I wished I could sing like Lynn Anderson. She sang like an angel. Her new husband, Glenn Sutton, may have been chart-savvy, but he never brought out the best in Lynn's voice. 

This was her best:

Here is a sampling:

The Seventies

I seriously thought this was a sixties album. Well, it was on the cusp, released in 1970. Country duos began seriously with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. They set off a whole seventies trend -- Conway and Loretta, Mel Tillis and Sherry Bryce, Hank Williams, Jr. and Lois Johnson. Suddenly duets were hot.

This duet album was the best:

This album had so many good songs, it's difficult to pick just one. YouTube has made it easy for me, however. There are only a couple of videos available. Here is one:

Ronnie Milsap was a product of the seventies, and he was huge. I saw Ronnie in concert with a couple of other artists I don't remember. That's how he dominated. Take a great singer, add some great country songs, stir in some piano and a whole lot of soul, and you have Ronnie Milsap.

Gary Stewart entered the country scene like a tornado. Who was this guy, and where did he come from? Suddenly he was just there. New country artists were rare. Country music was a continuum. George Jones had "The Race Is On" and then he morphed to "A Good Year for the Roses". Faron Young could never do better than "Hello Walls" and then he found a new producer at Mercury Records and soared, with songs like "Wine Me Up". But they'd always been there. I only vaguely remember the first recording by Merle Haggard, but it seemed he'd always been around. In the seventies new artists, brand-spankin' new, just showed up. All I had available to me was my radio. There was no YouTube or Pandora. Country TV was Hee Haw, if we could stand it. No Nashville Now. No CMT. 

And suddenly there was this guy:

Gary Stewart's story is a sad one. I prefer to remember his music:

Things that should not be forgotten are. It took a guy from New Jersey to remind Nashville what country music was all about. I was so parched for good music in the seventies, it was a revelation to find someone good. Really good. Eddie Rabbitt, like Gary Stewart, died young. But damn! We should not forget either of them. And Eddie? Well, if you love a rainy night or you're driving your life away, thank him.

Rocky Mountain Music was far above anything any country artist released in that seventieth decade.

And there you have it -- the sixties and seventies "best", wrapped up in one lonely blog post.  

I liked seeing Eddie and Gary and Porter and Ray again. Old friends. 

I miss them.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

How Does One Pick The Best Country Album?

"Best Of" lists are so subjective. I read them with a heavy shake of salt. Honestly, I read them to find out how wrong they are -- in my opinion. That's the thing; it's simply opinion. My list of the all-time best TV shows will be different from yours. Wildly different. And I don't even know if I could pick the all-time best TV shows. That stream is fluid. My husband and I just finished watching a series on DVD that I would now rank in my top five. And we're watching one now on Netflix that's pretty damn good.

Music is a bit different. One can discount current music. And I'm guessing any new music won't crack the Top 100. So, we take a backward glance. But here's the thing; music is emotional. My life experience is my own. Albums that mean something to me, others would say, "huh?" You had to be there. And you weren't. I wasn't living your life, either. See?

Nevertheless, with hindsight I can weed out emotion and be objective; brutally objective. I'm frankly hard to please, music-wise.

Country albums weren't even a "thing" until sometime in the seventies. Oh, there were country albums, but they were vehicles to support a hit single. The modus operandi of the records producers was to slap the big single on track one and fill up the rest of the disc space with cover versions of other artists' songs. Thus, we had Tammy singing D-I-V-O-R-C-E followed by her versions of Rose Garden and Don't Come Home a-Drinkin'.

Even in the seventies country albums were mostly duds. I will say right now that the following are not the best country albums of all time, despite what Rolling Stone Magazine (a real authority on country) says: "Wanted! The Outlaws", "Red Headed Stranger", "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". The Outlaws was a disjointed accumulation of outtakes by various artists slapped together with a sepia-toned wanted poster on the cover. There was no cohesion. It would be like putting a Dean Martin lounge song next to a Reba McEntire ballad side-by-side with a discarded Led Zeppelin track and calling it, "Wanted! A Bunch of People Who Have Nothing In Common". Red Headed Stranger had one decent song, but it was "edgy" in an East Texas version of edgy, which meant "acoustic".  Will The Circle Be Unbroken was a collection of old-time songs featuring instruments like dulcimers and banjos -- a purer version of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, only without a heart-stirring track like "Man of Constant Sorrow".

This site recently published a list of the Top 100 Country Albums of All Time. I give them kudos for making an honest effort. The list is a bit top-heavy with current albums, but the thing is, one can't rank a current album as one of the best of all time. You gotta give it a couple of decades to breathe. Ten or twenty years to settle into its slot on the shelf next to Merle and George and see if it continues to claim its spot or if it goes into the garage sale pile for 25 cents. (I've got tons of 25-cent CD's; trust me.)

This list also gave "Coat of Many Colors" the number one spot. I never bought that album. I looked at the track listing in the store, and decided to save my six dollars and ninety-nine cents. I probably bought an Eddie Rabbitt album instead and never looked back.

Some on the list I will grant were exquisite albums, but only a few; pitiably few.

So my primer, if you want to sample the greats:

No live performance, naturally. It was an album cut, after all, but here's a sampling:

I didn't know who the heck Rodney Crowell was in 1988. But it was kind of like when I discovered Foster and Lloyd. I didn't know them, but I knew good music. I liked country music, just a bit updated from the lackadaisical Hank Williams sound of the fifties. I liked the bones of country; I just needed a bit more drum, a bit more bass. "Diamonds and Dirt" was country.

To wit:

Dwight Yoakam is...really something. It's almost a badge of honor that the Nashville establishment has never recognized him with an award. Dwight is too cool for those dudes. After spending most of the nineties listening to Hall and Oates (who I still love) and Huey Lewis and the News (who I still love), and various MTV stars, when I decided to give country one more try, it was George and Dwight who informed me what I had been missing. "Guitars, Cadillacs" was a revelation. This is most likely my favorite Dwight album:

Here you go:

In hindsight, some of the best years for country music were the mid-eighties (right after I'd abandoned it, naturally). "If you love something, set it free", apparently. That was a time when "Vocal Group" at the CMA's actually meant something. We had Restless Heart, Diamond Rio, Nitty Gritty, Highway 101, to name a few. We had the Judds. Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea. Clint Black, Vince Gill, Ricky Van Shelton, Earl Thomas Conley, Mark Chesnutt. I'm lonesome just thinking about those artists and those times.

1986 was pretty damn good for classic albums. "Classic" is one thing; "Best of" is a category all its own. I sometimes repeat anecdotes here, but these two tales are so ironic, they bear repeating:  

My mom and dad, in their naivete, their lack of country music sophistication, slipped one of those VHS tapes into their VCR one Friday night when I'd brought my kids over. Some country wannabe in a Stetson was crooning into the mic. I tossed my hand and sauntered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. This guy was certainly no Merle Haggard. My ear caught the whine of the steel guitar and the crunch of twin fiddles, however, and I granted (silently) that this music sounded pretty good. I walked back to the living room and plopped on the sofa. "Who's this guy?" I asked, feigning boredom. "George Strait", my mom said. "Straight", I murmured, committing the name to memory. I told myself I should check out this Straight guy next time I stopped at the mall. 

Flash forward a couple of years and Mom called and asked me if I wanted to see this guy Randy Travis in concert. "I'll get enough tickets for all of us," she said. "Noooo, not really," I replied. Who was Randy Travis? Apparently another one of those "new country" artists. I couldn't stand sitting through a concert of yet another dude who pretended to be "authentic". Mom was either in a mood to educate me or wanted to promote some family togetherness, so she didn't give up. "He's really good", she said. I'd dedicated too many years waiting for country music to get good again. Country music was Charly McClain and Crystal Gayle and Alabama, who I'd seen in concert 2,100 times because they toured relentlessly. Country music was Charley Pride re-recording bad pop songs, Louise Mandrell recording a country version of "Reunited" with her husband. Country music was snatching icky pop songs from the charts and adding a touch of steel guitar in the hope that they wouldn't sound as bad as they really were. There obviously weren't any country songwriters anymore. Merle was drowning in cocaine, having a fling with Dolly; trying to stave off time.

I sighed heavily into the receiver."Okay," I surrendered. Another wasted evening, when I could be home watching MTV videos dance across my screen.

The lights went down and this Randy dude walked out wearing a white suit. I stared down at my bag of popcorn and clapped apathetically. I told myself to grow up and pretend like I was having fun. Mom and Dad sure were. Even my sister seemed excited. The dude in white launched into some song about bones; a trite uptempo number. Sure, he had a good voice. I wasn't enamored with his contrived pacing across the stage, mic in hand; but his act was far better than Hank Williams, Jr's, whose concert I had walked out on a couple of years before. I'd seen my share of bad concerts -- my hometown was small enough that one had to take her entertainment where she could find it. My enormous music ego slipped a bit and I began enjoying this new guy.

Then he launched into this:

Okay, that did it. I dropped my popcorn bag into my lap and applauded furiously. I might have even hooted.

The moral of these stories is, always listen to your mom and dad. 

Which, after a long, meandering road, leads me to another of the best country albums of all time, "Storms of Life":

I'm gonna throw in an album that doesn't get the renown it deserves. What CD's would you take on a road trip? Let's say you could only pick five. Hmmm, it's not easy, is it? This would be one of mine:

There were so many great songs on this album, but unfortunately a dearth of live videos. I did see the NGDB in concert. They were on one of those free stages at a festival and they were awesome. One of the guys even played the accordion! This album captures NGDB at their best, "Fishin' In The Dark" not withstanding. 


The best country albums of all time didn't spring to life only in the eighties. Just most of them.

We'll discuss the sixties in another post. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Rock Music Changed in1967 and So Did I

Rock music changed in 1967 and so did I.

When my parents dropped the hammer on me in the fall of 1966 -- informed me that we were moving to a new state, a new town -- I was initially pumped. Thanks to my dad, I've always possessed that optimism gene, certain that tomorrow is going to be great, much greater than today. When I heard the news, I was giddy. I hopped on my bike and zoomed down our country road, felt the wind whip my hair; threw my arms out like a baby bird alighting for the first time.

It's funny how reality pummels dreams.

Reality was bleak. The motel my mom and dad purchased with their hard-fought savings and the good will of their local banker was nice enough for the nineteen sixties sample case salesman pulling off the blacktop looking for a medium-soft bed for the night, but our family of five was tucked into an attached two-bedroom apartment behind the motel office. On the farm my world was vast, endless. The blue sky punctured by white fluffy clouds tucked me snugly under God's arm. This new place was dank and dark and claustrophobic. My companions in misery were a four and five-year-old, and we three shared a skinny room with bunk beds and a gnat-smeared high window. Heaven. That first night, I climbed the three-rung ladder to the top bunk, flipped up the volume knob on my transistor radio, shoved it under my pillow and cried.

Did the whole world change? Well, yea, it did. My world was no longer Lesley Gore and the Beach Boys and the Beatles. The Beatles were different, the same way my whole existence had become an alternate universe. I ached for my home that wasn't my home anymore.

We moved in December of 1966, and I had a couple of weeks before I was forced to meet my new school and a bunch of strangers. I was eleven, going on twelve. A tip to parents -- if you feel you need a life change, don't move when your kid is eleven going on twelve. You can tell yourselves that everything will work out -- everybody will adapt -- but it's not true. Your kid will never, ever get over it. It will scar them. I don't know what the right age would be. My big brother was twenty, so he was on his own. He had a Ford Fairlane that would take him wherever he wanted to go. If he didn't like his current circumstance, he could just -- go. My little brother and sister weren't yet fully formed, so their sole memories would be of that sodden apartment that to them smelled like home. But I knew better. And that's what doomed me. I knew there was a better life. A life I would never live again.

My transistor radio was absolutely no help. And TV had changed, too. When whoever it was who discovered color TV latched onto the possibilities, that man apparently determined that the colors flashing on the screen should be wildly garish -- blinding yellows and eye-scorching reds and a coverlet of lime green. If you've ever seen reruns of Laugh-In, you'll understand. The tawdry hues burned the average kid's eyeballs.

As confused as I was, this sort of thing confused me even more:

And then we had the song that is played in every single documentary about the Viet Nam war:

The Supremes were on the downslide in 1967. Herewith, the garish colors:

My only friends early in '67 were my radio and our big console TV in the living room. My sixth grade classroom was a blur of unfamiliar girls clad in green jumpers and puffy-sleeved blouses and boys with blonde bowl-cuts and stringy bangs. We studied things like Constantinople and I scribbled math calculations on wide-lined paper and pretended I knew what I was doing. We lined up along opposite sides of the wall and had spelldowns. Recess consisted of me hugging the brick wall until the bell rang.

The school bus was a vehicle of torture. I generally grabbed a window seat halfway back and tried to remain incognito. Boys tussled and pushed one another into the aisle. There was always one dweeb who sat up front and made small talk with the driver. High school girls tucked their mini-skirts beneath them and giggled to each other, and there was always one "couple" who never actually talked to each other, but cuddled close. Even the little kids, when they alighted the bus at the elementary school, managed to find something to cackle and snort about. Then there was me, with my friend the radio. 

I probably hate this song because my friend, the radio, liked to play it in my torture chamber, the bus, every day. To be honest, I also hate it because it's a bad song. Its awfulness sums up 1967 for me.

At home I was alert to any hint of criticism, of which there were many. I will concede that I was kinda lazy. I was eleven! Today an eleven-year-old is a child. In '67 eleven equaled mini-adult. Or was supposed to. Me being the "eldest" (at home at the time), Yelling Mom had her expectations. I was never capable of meeting them. Eventually I began avoiding Yelling Mom. 

Existence was cruelly claustrophobic. The bedroom three of us shared approximated the size of an average walk-in closet. There was a desk or a dresser against one side of the narrow wall that I plopped my battery-powered phonograph atop, and I spun my Paul Revere and the Raiders singles and the one new album I possessed, "The Monkees", while my little brother and sister were outside riding their tricycles or creating five-year-old mayhem. 

This next song holds no particular memories for me, but it was a hit in 1967. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would become the most overplayed song of all time. That's why I include it. And that's why we hate it. F the misty morning fog:

Sometime in '67 I somehow wrangled my own room. I remember a lot of cajoling and a bunch of rationalizing. I don't recall exactly why Yelling Mom acquiesced, but owning a motel with 52 rooms made the decision less knotty. Out our kitchen door was the garage and the motel's laundry room and adjacent to that was Room Number One. Room Number One became my room. My big brother carved a doorway in the garage wall, so I could traverse the kitchen (where, frankly, I needed to obtain sustenance), scamper through the cold garage, and glide my way right into Room Number One. It was THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME. I'd barely turned twelve and I'd become a permanent motel guest. Granted, I had to be my own motel maid, but that was a small price to pay. And I was diligent about cleaning. After all, it was mine.

Toward the end of the school year, I'd made a friend, sort of. We were still scoping each other out, and her taste in music would upend my musical world, but I was feeling a tinge of happiness. I would arise to the beep of my alarm in my own room, stumble to the bathroom (yes, it had its own bathroom!), click on my radio and apply makeup to my zit-dotted face to music like:


And especially:


Graham Nash wasn't always iconic (as in CSNY). He also was a Hollie. People forget minor details like that. I don't, because I was around (applying makeup in the mirror).

Speaking of the Turtles (I was, earlier), I actually like this song better than Happy Together. Call me crazy.

As the hot July sun beat down on the asphalt I skipped across, barefooted; past the timber stand my big brother had hammered together to sell fireworks from, down the cement stairway to the pool (yea, we had a pool -- it was for commerce reasons. Travelers liked a pool. Luckily for me, the traveling salesmen didn't show up until 'round dinnertime, so I had the pool to myself), cheap sunglasses with white frames shading my eyes, a two-piece bathing suit hugging my non-existent curves, I plopped upon a webbed chaise lounge, rubbed Coppertone on my legs and slid up the volume on my transistor.

In July, the sizzling sun met the sizzling zzzzzt of sultry summer radio.


And thus:

The Summer of Love is a construct. I'm not saying it wasn't real -- I'm just saying that unless you lived in or "took a trip" to San Francisco, it didn't matter at all to those of us in flyover country. Like anything that gets pumped up by the media, it's now attained a stature it didn't actually have at the time. Yes, the Jefferson Airplane had some hits. Yes, they weren't good songs. Yes, Big Brother and the Holding Company had a groovy girl singer. At Fillmore West, the crowds loved her. She didn't have any hit songs in '67, though. Let's face it; the biggest act of 1967 was an artificial, carefully constructed, network approved "group" called the Monkees.

The most enduring remnant, for me, of the Summer of Love, is a pretty song that could have been about St. Louis or Nagocdoches. It was just a nice song, sung by a nice singer:

The good news for me is, sometime in 1967 I submitted. I still didn't like where I lived, but what were my choices? I had my family. I didn't claim them, but I knew I had them. Everything else was  sparkle in the wind and I could never catch it. So I submitted. As the calendar tumbled, this place would become my new home. I never anticipated what lay in front of me, music-wise. 

What lay ahead would change me.

Friday, April 14, 2017

2017 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees

The 2017 inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame were announced on Wednesday.

The Hall of Fame is right to induct members from three classes:  Modern Era, Veterans Era, and Songwriter. The Veterans Era gives artists a second chance -- artists who are largely forgotten. It's like the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you don't get enough votes in the first few rounds, you're out of luck. You've gotta wait several years for the Veterans Committee to give you a pass or forget it. Your career meant nothing. You know, guys like Johnny Paycheck. Or of a more recent vintage, Dwight Yoakam (who will probably never get in, because, you know, California). The Hall could at least hold a mass induction -- all the artists they "forgot". Give them a plaque and an smattering of applause. Omitting them is like Jack Morris or Roger Maris (what?) being labeled inconsequential.

Nevertheless, the Hall tries its best, and sooner or later (mostly later) it gets around to the guys and gals without whom country music wouldn't exist.


Songwriter:  Don Schlitz

If you wanna talk about country music in the seventies and eighties, the name Don Schlitz had better roll off your tongue. There is magic in writing a hit song: one part formula, one part wisdom, one part luck, and one thousand parts heart. You have to mix all the parts together in just the right amounts to have a songwriting career like Don Schlitz has had.

Let's start:

You get the picture.

Of course, we're always, as luck would have it, remembered for  things that seemed inconsequential at the time. I said something witty once -- I don't remember saying it, but I must have, because someone remembers it and they repeat it, ad nauseam, to every person they encounter. That's sort of like Don Schlitz's most-remembered song. It was probably a fun way to spend an afternoon with his songwriting buddies. And thirty some-odd years later, it's become a TV movie and a line everybody throws out every time they hear the words, "you gotta".

I saw Kenny Rogers in concert around 1980. When I say "saw", I mean I was in the nosebleed section of an arena in Duluth, Minnesota. I had a four-year-old and a two-year-old that I somehow convinced the ticket-taker I could balance on my lap, thus avoiding the expense of buying two additional tickets. I was on vacation with my mom and dad and the concert was an impulse decision.

Kenny was a little too "pop" for my country sensibilities, but shoot, I was on vacation! Thus, I threw caution to the wind.

Don was no doubt sitting around with his guitar one afternoon and hollered out, hey! How about this? It has a catchy chorus; who knows? Maybe in 2017 they'll make a funny commercial about it. It could happen! And The Gambler was born (luck, wisdom, formula, and heart).

It's an earworm if there ever was an earworm.

Veterans Era Artist:  Jerry Reed 

I'm not sure I'm on board with the selection of Jerry Reed, because to me, he will forever be known as Burt Reynolds' sidekick. I suppose that's not entirely fair. 

As songwriters go, well, eh. Trust me; I was around in the seventies. FM radio was new. FM radio in a car was a novelty; unless, I guess, you owned a Lincoln like my dad did (my dad wasn't rich, but he loved his cars). My dad owned a creme brulee Lincoln Continental -- a huge boat of a car -- that sometimes my mom slipped behind the wheel of and deigned to drive me somewhere. FM radio loved Jerry Reed. I was afraid to laugh, nay chuckle, in the presence of my mom, but this song made me laugh out loud:

Ironic, because smoking isn't too hilarious, in hindsight. Maybe I should blame Jerry Reed for setting me on that dark path. But I'll be magnanimous and give him a pass. I was quite impressionable at the time, though.

Jerry also wrote this song, which was recorded by a guy who, in his time, was a country music titan. Jimmy Dean, before he determined to make tasty sausage, had an actual network TV show -- on ABC -- and he introduced the early Muppets to a national audience. "Rowlf" got his start on Jimmy Dean's show, but that's neither here nor there. By the time Jimmy recorded this Jerry Reed song, Jimmy's career was on the downslide. Jimmy was known for doing recitations like "Big Bad John", but he did record this one:

Speaking of Burt Reynolds, one who surfs the channels for old kitschy movies might remember this:

Hot. When you're hot, you're hot. When you're not, you're not. Words to live by.

Remember Elvis Presley? Who above the age of eighty doesn't? Well, Jerry Reed wrote this song, too:

Okay, I'm not a rabid Jerry Reed fan, but he did what he did, and Burt and his toupee can thank Jerry for his bulging bank account.

And there you go. I never said I worshiped everybody who ever caught the eye of the HOF.

Modern Era Artist:  Alan Jackson

You know that kid in your sixth grade class? The one you suspected might be a bit "slow"? That kid had fortitude, though, boy. He plowed on. That kid never once gave up. Sure, he had to repeat the sixth grade, and he was way taller and beefier than the other boys in the classroom, but he kept on keeping on. He also had a wisp of a mustache, though no one commented on it or pointed it out. 

Well, that boy is Alan Jackson.

I like Alan; don't get me wrong. He knows how to write a hit song and he reveres the classics. And he has persistence. In the wonder that was country music in the eighties, Alan Jackson was the guy who was dependable. One could always lean on him to whip out a classic country tune, but I never once uttered the words, "Alan Jackson is my favorite singer."

I saw Alan Jackson once in concert. The word "charisma" doesn't rhyme with "Jackson". Among the top male artists from that era, in descending order of dynamic performances, it would go Garth, Dwight, Randy, George (Strait), Vince, with Alan Jackson bringing up the rear. (I never saw Clint or Ricky Van Shelton, so I cannot judge.) In fairness, Alan Jackson was a songwriter at heart who suddenly found himself with a few hit songs on his hands, and thus had to put together a stage show. Maybe he's better now. I don't exactly think so, but it's possible.

Being present at the dawn of Alan Jackson's career, I can say with authority that he recorded one good album, "A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'bout Love)". One can't exactly count "Under The Influence", although I loved the hell out of it, but alas, it was an album of cover songs. The first album by Alan I purchased, though, was "Here In The Real World.". The first time I saw Alan Jackson on CMT, he'd made a video of a song called "Blue Blooded Woman". It wasn't a great song, but he certainly was tall! And he had a tall mustache to match. That was my first impression of Alan Jackson. His next song was miles better:

I'm just going to throw here some of my favorite Alan Jackson recordings, willy-nilly. My blog, my videos, I say.

So, let's look back, shall we?

Yes, this is a Jim Ed Brown song, but kudos to Alan for this version:

My all-time, most favorite, Alan Jackson recording is right here. For this song alone, I say give him whatever award you want to bestow. The video is awesome, too. Aside from "Here In The Real World", whose vibe is rudimentary, yet has that old-time country music twang, this song landed Alan smack-dab in the zenith of the eighth decade of the twentieth century.

Yee haw.

Bob McDill wrote this song. He was probably having a bad day, like all of us have from time to time. I think Bob was pissed off, and I don't blame him. At the time, everybody was jumping on the country bandwagon, because country was outselling every other genre of music, but pretenders? Ick. It's not as if we didn't know what they were up to. Alan no doubt found this song among the tapes he was given and who else but Alan would take it to heart?

In keeping with that theme, Alan got to record with his (and everybody's) idol, George Strait, and this is an excellent, excellent song:

As life goes, Alan is remembered most for two songs that, while not bad, per se, are annoying in their over-exposure. Plus, they're three-chord songs, essentially, and nobody has done great three-chord songs since Roger Miller was writing for Ray Price, and even those songs at least threw in a B chord for good measure.

Nevertheless, here we go:

All in all, Alan deserves this award, and you know he won't take it for granted. He reveres Hank and George (Jones) and George (Strait) and others who've essentially been forgotten, so having his portrait hanging in the Country Music Hall of Fame will be more than a throw-off for him. As it should be. Alan is a caretaker of country music, much like Marty Stuart, and much like (if I should be so bold to say) me. Music's past may be passe to some, but we don't get to here without scrubbing the "there". 

And thus time marches on.

The Country Music Hall of Fame induction announcement (brought to you by Vince Gill):