Category Archives: Country Music
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
- Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
- Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
- Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
- Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
- Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races
I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
- Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
- Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
- Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
- Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
- Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
- Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep
Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
Where the years went, I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away
I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago
It’s gone away in yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide
The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away
- Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
A few days ago, I wrote about the too-soon loss of Doug Dillard, an extraordinary banjo player who was a bridge figure between Bill Monroe and the “pure bluegrass” (which is itself an irony, since Monroe was actually an innovator himself. He took a hodgepodge of what is ssometimes called “old time music,” consisting of fiddle tunes for
dancing, old folk tunes, blues and other music that flowed from Appalachia and the south and forged a unique sound dominated by the mandolin and banjo and fiddle. He was not beyond experimenting himself, even bringing an accordion in a time or two. (Old banjo joke: “Perfect pitch—throw the banjo into the dumpster without hitting the sides and landing on the accordion).
What became the new “bluegrass,” newgrass, new acoustic and everything else flowed from the sources in Scotch-Irish music from the mountains and all of those streams, and several powerful innovators, like Monroe, Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Carter family. They influenced pop, rock, country and Elvis, all of whom (including the Beatles) declared their love for Monroe. This melting pot of music was, I sometimes think, an artistic shadow world where segregation couldn’t reach. The great traditions of music inevitably touched, borrowed and intertwined in ways that Jim Crow could not control.
The musicians themselves might simply say, “Music is music.” Can’t pen it up or lock it down. It flows out of a life, a tradition, a stream, and then when it meets another one, something new and wonderful is the result. In music, uniqueness and blending and mixing can’t help it. If our politics and culture are corrupted by control, domination and resistance to the new, art is the great underminer. It remembers tradition and changes it at the same time.
Which brings me to Arthel Lane Watson, known affectionately as “Doc.” Doc Watson is like Woodstock. Seems like everybody met, heard or saw Doc at sometime or other.
I am an exception. I have only known Doc on YouTube and CDs and guitar tablature and stories and books. That’s an extraordinary fact, given that I’ve been going to hear acoustic music at festivals, clubs, and concerts pretty seriously over the past fifteen years. I’ve gone to guitar camp three times at Steve Kaufman’s acoustic “kamp”, where Doc is revered and talked about like a medieval monk would think about St. Anthony. I just never got there. Preachers don’t get weekends off in May, generally, to go to “Merlefest,” the acclaimed festival that Doc started as a perpetual memorial to his son, Merle. Merle and Doc performed together for many years, but after he died in a tractor accident, Merlefest became Doc’s homage to his son. It is one of the largest music festivals around and you will hear the top acoustic players and performers there.
So I may be the only person in the world who never met Doc Watson AND missed Woodstock. Some lives, however, manage to go way beyond themselves. Every guitar player worth anything has favorite “licks,” a little four or eight or sixteen note chop that you can pop in now and then in an open space, something that says, “that’s me in there.” I have the famous “G-run” that every bluegrass guitar player knows, of course, but I have a dozen others that, when I don’t know what else to do, I call on it. I have one I got years ago when I learned “Beaumont Rag,” one of Doc’s most famous pieces, and one that nearly every picker learns eventually. Glenn Tolbert taught the lick to me in another song, but then I began to hear that little eight note signature in a lot of places. “That’s a lick from old Doc Watson,” Glenn told me solemnly. So I kept it and since it was one of the first licks I learned for songs in the key of C, I found it coming along pretty often. So I expect Ol’ Doc will be with me right on to my end.
So Doc has immortality. There isn’t a guitar picker in rock, country, blues, bluegrass or jazz that doesn’t know Doc. Pretty good for a blind old country boy. When Arthel Lane Watson came along, sixth of nine kids, and lost his eyesight before age two, the prospects didn’t look bright. When he died recently, every major newspaper in the country from the New York Times to LA ran a story about him. They refered to him as a legend, a “guitar wizard,” and other superlatives.
Arthel dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working for his Dad. He could fix a car by sound and rewired his own house. How a blind man did that and passed inspection I’ll never know. Doc Watson was a wonder. But it’s the picking you need to hear. You can read about him in one of the stories online—Just type in “Doc Watson” and read. I’d rather you listen and hear. Yes, since he came along there are faster pickers, but nobody was doing what he did until he did it.
The very last one below is a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Yes, indeed. “I once was blind, but now I see.” Sing it, brother. I like to think about you laying those new eyes you get from God on Merle for the very first time.
LISTEN TO DOC
CLICK TO LISTEN With Earl Scruggs on “Cripple Creek” at Doc’s House
CLICK TO LISTEN to Doc sing and play “Sittin’ On Top of the World” He tells about his blindness.
CLICK TO LISTEN to Doc play “East Tennessee Rag/Beaumont Rag” medley
CLICK TO LISTEN to “Amazing Grace”
The Darling Boys are no more
This has been one of the unkindest of years in acoustic music. First, Earl Scruggs, the Founding Father of bluegrass banjo, passed away (read my post on Earl’s death here CLICK) back in March. Then a few weeks ago, Doug Dillard, a rollicking banjo player who blazed a trail with the banjo across genres in the 1970s when he left the Dillards to join Gene Clark of the Byrds to form Dillard and Clark.
Of course, you’d know old Doug for another reason, if you ever watched the Andy Griffith Show. He was the poker-faced Darlin’ Brother in the family band that descended like an affectionate blight on Andy and Mayberry every
now and then, always intermixing their superstition and hijinx drama with some red-hot bluegrass while Paw (Denver Pyle) came along on the jug.
In fact, the Darlin’ Family were a rising bluegrass band discovered by Andy Griffith’s producer in a nightclub in Los Angeles. At the core were two brothers, Rodney and Doug Dillard, on guitar and banjo, and joined by Mitch Jayne and Dean Webb on bass and mandolin. They hailed from Missouri and had been performing on the folk revival scene when Andy found them. They moved to LA to have greater freedom to experiment with their music and its traditions.
The first bluegrass song I played was probably “Orange Blossom Special” with my Dad and Uncle Paul Furr on the fiddle on Uncle Paul’s porch. Uncle Paul exposed me to my first outhouse, although it was a little upscale, known as a “two-holer.” The second song I met growing up was “Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” brought to me by my friend Paul in high school, while we were playing together. I loved it right away and got the vinyl album. In our current band, we learned Dillard’s version of this very old tune early on and still do it. “Bowed My Head” was an old time tune that Bill Monroe and others did in an old time style, but Dillard and Clark did it with drums, pedal steel and Byron Berline on the fiddle. It had an energy that would influence many others. The New York Times says,
Known simply as Dillard and Clark, their group, with Mr. Dillard playing guitar and fiddle as well as banjo, recorded two albums for A&M before disbanding. The albums did not sell well but have come to be regarded as among the earliest stirrings of the West Coast country-rock movement and an important influence on the Eagles and other bands. (Bernie Leadon, a charter member of the Eagles, had also worked with Dillard and Clark.)
Doug Dillard’s playing has shown up in all our lives somewhere. According to Billboard magazine’s tribute article, “the brothers still worked together in front of the camera from time to time, being part of Harry Dean Stanton’s band in the Bette Midler film The Rose.” The Dillards toured with many performers over the years– Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, even Elton John. They left a huge influence on what would become “newgrass” and crossover music in groups like the Eagles and many others.
Doug could make a banjo sing. I read that when he first got his banjo he got his Dad to drive him to Nashville to Earl Scruggs’ house
Bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs answered a knock at the door of his Nashville home in 1953 to find an eager-
looking banjo enthusiast on the porch asking Scruggs to put a set of his special tuner keys on the young man’s instrument. “He was so gracious,” Rodney Dillard said of the reception his older brother, banjo player Doug Dillard, received that day from the father of the bluegrass banjo. “He sold him the tuners, then sat down at his kitchen table and installed them on the spot.” (LA Times—read the story)
The fine compilation of their hits is on a single CD called THERE IS A TIME: 1963-1970. It contains all the great Darling Family songs from the show, but also a lot of the songs the Dillards did, from folk to country, old time and blended styles. You can hear Doug Dillard’s melodic licks leap from the strings.
Anyway, I especially remember another song the Dillards did that is one of our mainstays, “There is a Time.” (Listen) It is a sad, mournful, truth-telling tune about how love is weathered down and dies in time. Charlene sang it on the Griffith show and it was one of the most haunting tunes I ever heard. Andy says at the end, “Well, that’s about the purtiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
One thing is different about Doug from his Andy Griffith character, who was always poker-faccd. If you ever watch a video of Doug Dillard, he’s always smiling onstage.
Some years ago, Rodney was invited to do the song with the Dillards on the next generation of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III.” Rodney wrote a fourth verse to add to the original three that seems somehow fitting. Originally written with Mitch Jayne, who has since passed away, he sang it in a video that I leave with you as he mentions the loss of Jayne and, perhaps, fitting to hear as we think about his brother’s passing. The new lyric says, hopefully
Time is like a river flowing
with no regrets as it moves on
Around each bend a shining morning
and all the friends we thought were gone
Rest in peace, I say once more, to another banjo legend. Thank you, Doug Dillard. The Darling Boys are no more.
Tomorrow, I’ll remember Doc Watson. Two legends deserve their own mentions.
Earl Scruggs, “pioneer” as the Huffington Post put it, of the Three-finger Banjo style, has died. For some of us, he has been a mentor and inspiration our whole lives. He was not merely a pioneer, he was the King. And there are many legends on the banjo–Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Jens Kruger, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and many greats. But no one like Earl.
As a displaced North Carolina boy moving around the country, my Dad kept me connected to music. He had a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears and a Harmony archtop acoustic guitar. The electric would shock you if you played in bare feet on the garage floor so I tended to play the acoustic. I didn’t know much about Earl Scruggs, but I kept running into him over the years.
When we moved to Irving, Texas in the late Sixties, I learned to play very slow rhythm guitar to a very slow “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (LISTEN) with my seventh grade friend, Brad Phillips, who was the odd combination of a banjo playing Episcopalian. Read the rest of this entry
Weather. Someone said to me not long ago, “It is humbling to consider that when you come to die, the crowd that day will be determined by the weather and they’ll sum your life up in twenty minutes or less.” Humbling.
“Shelter” is such a “taken for granted” in America that we live more disconnected from the fragility of life as it is exposed to the elements. It breaks in on us now and then—in California, by earthquake, in other places, snow or tsunami. Here in the South, we live chronically subject to the tornado and hurricanes.
Hurricanes are different in that they are coming for days. There’s always time to get away if you want to skeedaddle, even though it is some sort of honorable foolishness in this part of the country that there is always some guy named Leonard or Dude who never leaves and is filmed with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth while he grins and nails up plywood on his flimsy house and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m going to ride ‘er out.” Sometimes Leonard is never seen again, but often he makes it.
I don’t have any expertise on weather, but this global warming issue seems persuasive. How could billions of us NOT have an impact? Now, what we can do, or whether it’s too far gone, who can tell? We’re going to have to ride ‘er out.
If a hurricane is like watching an approaching army from a mountaintop, a tornado is more like running
into Jack the Ripper. Here in Alabama, when our local weatherman star says, “The sky is falling,” the local Publix grocery store looks like the aftermath of a locust plague and everybody heads for the house and their safe place. My wife and I have sat through more than a few in the dark, sitting down in the basement where my office-studio is, listening to the weather radio and praying for strangers nearby. After last April, the anxiety only went higher.
The closest I ever got to death out in the elements, other than almost drowning when I was six (I got hit by a car crossing the street that year, too, so I have to say, vulnerability I do know as a friend), was out in a rainstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado in the summer of ’73. It came on quickly, and we were surveying in a remote area where there wasn’t even a road. All we could do was crouch under a little hollow in a mountainside and wait. By and by, a bolt of lightening and a thunder clap came simultaneously. I saw the lighting hitting the ground about 100 feet away. My arm hair was standing straight up.
The three of us on that survey crew hollered. I think I yelled, “Whoa!” Surely the most useless word I ever spoke, but I didn’t have time to compose any elegant thoughts. As fast as it came, it was over. And, Lord, we were glad to be alive, we were. Exhilarating.
That’s what tornadoes are like—Jack the Ripper comes down the street and goes on by, and you are so grateful. Missed it this time.
Reminds me, like the time I huddled in the rain, that life is very precious, never guaranteed, and worth treasuring every day. Electric lights, indoor plumbing and the delusion of endless electricity have fooled us. We’re riders in the rain who still have to take cover when the siren sounds.
Since the weather Chicken Littlin’ is going on today, thought I’d post a couple of storm songs. Bluegrass, country and folk have always written songs about duststorms, avalanches, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Take a listen to two if you’re huddling down somewhere. “Galveston Flood” by Tony Rice and “California Earthquake,” a Rodney Crowell song performed by the Seldom Scene.
This earth is where we live. You have to respect it. Like Clint Eastwood said, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”
Tonight I will be in concert at Moonlight on the Mountain in Bluff Park, which is in Hoover, Alabama. Hoping lots of my friends will come out. I will be sharing the evening with Adler & Hearne, a songwriter duo from Texas. The some in the first time that I have had a chance to hear them live, and I’m looking forward to it. I will have the first half of the concert beginning at 730. Adler & Hearne will come after me, and lots of friends have told me they’re coming out tonight. We’ll have a grand time! If you’re in the Birmingham area I would welcome you to come and join us.
One of my very favorite things to do is to read song titles. Titles are one of the most challenging aspects of preaching or songwriting. A title has to catch the listener’s interest. It can cause them to wonder, or it can be the hook of the song. A lot of titles, Especially in the seventies, seem to have little or nothing to do with the song itself! A good title can play with your mind. Fortunately, titles cannot be copyrighted, so sometimes you can even re-do a great title . Here’s the song list for tonight. I’m a couple of terrific friends, Brent warren and Don Wendorf, who are coming to play with me on some of the songs. He is the setlist for tonight. You can ponder the titles and come hear for yourself.
|Stuck in the Mud|
|Man I Didn’t Kill|
|Imperfections No. 2|
|Playing It Safe|
|Momma’s Only Sleeping|
|Overload of Bad News Blues|
|The Us That Used to Be|
|Trying to Remember|
|A Little Truth Can Kill You|
|People in Egypt|
|Your Whole Life In Front of You|
|Cold Hard Cash|
|What It Is|
|Sky’s a Clearing|
A new friend from New York reminded me of the Cash bio I read a few years back. Like everyone, I loved “Walk the Line,” the bio-pic of the life and love of Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash that came out years ago. It is not a true biography, really. Robert Streissguth’s JOHNNY CASH: THE BIOGRAPHY is where you get more than the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.
Johnny’s story was, of course, about a many coming out of hard times, his well-known descent into drugs and alcohol that ruined his first marriage and nearly destroyed his career in mid-stream. The movie ends at the point where he turned his life around, married June, and got his act together again in the late sixties. It was not “happily ever after,” but for a movie that’s okay.
Johnny was (and still is—he stays on my IPOD) one of my musical heroes in the late sixties, along with Bob Dylan, Willie, James Taylor, Neil Young and a lot of groups you haven’t heard of.
It is also about how the love of a woman saved his life at its worst moment. He struggled with the poverty of his childhood and of early loss in his life. He carried a lot of that pain into his adult life and it nearly killed him. But he rose from the ashes of those shadows. A part of his journey was returning to the Christian faith of his childhood. Johnny Cash was earthy and blunt, but he was also unabashed about his love for Jesus Christ.
He once said this of his earlier failures:
“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space…I learn from my mistakes. It’s a very painful way to learn…You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that’s part of it: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach.” (Streissguth)
Listen to those last words again: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach. Not a bad word for now or anytime. Our mistakes are not the final word as long as we’re breathing. If you’re dwelling in the past—the songs you used to write, the band you once had, or the retirement nest egg you watched dwindle away, hey, it’s time to box up and change addresses to now.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Today is a new day, even if you’re greeting at Walmart until a better gig comes along…
For today, here’s a link my daughter sent me from Seattle a few years back when her nephew was part of a guitar recital. Another little guy, five years old, did “Folsom Prison Blues.” Pretty awesome if you ever have five year olds still singing your songs after you’ve gone, even if they do say, “I shot a man in Wee-know”
Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104. A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them. They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music. Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.
Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74. He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born. He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders. They worked with their hands. Dad built that first house we lived in himself.
Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop. If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you. Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things. My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.” I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish. In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid. It was affectionate. We were like three little fish.
Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music. They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music. Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio. J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?” That was the music business then.
My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother. He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.” We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again. He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off. Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.
It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars. They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with. Remembering is important. Someone is alive as long as they are remembered. The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly. But that remembering is life. As long as we are remembered, inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.
Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life. He never got elected to anything, so far as I know. But he had a story. Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth. Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing. A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.
And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling. It doesn’t matter. Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.
This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar (Listen to the song)
Old-time, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, jazz all share a reverence for the heritage that helped them be born. Somebody had the guitar before you. Somebody played those songs their own way and gave you some ideas. Before you change it and make it your own, tip your hat and honor your ancestors.
I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley. Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr. This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians. It’s a pretty great list. Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key” I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.” We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.
Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life. Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever. A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels. After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.
Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music. Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be. Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.
Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage. If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere. She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style. Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo. Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies. Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.
They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice. Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have. They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake. They should have been playing on porches in 1946. Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.
That was August 12, a week ago as I write. Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died. Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday. I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country. We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer. But sometime in that day, the news came. “Elvis Presley died this morning.”
I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us. His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach. The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say. Not unlike Hank.
Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know. They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it. Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off. And then they were gone.
So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977. Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters. Thirty four years ago, the King was gone. Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too. What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life. So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing. If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”
So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both. You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go. We won’t forget you. Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”. Rest in peace.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.