Music City at Night

Music City at Night
Nashville: the City Where Some Dreams Begin and Others Die...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Old Crow Evolves, Plus Secor and Dylan's "Wheel"

It seems to me I'm always the last to hear about these things. I'm sad to say that one of my favorite groups is "evolving."

Old Crow Medicine Show is the group and the changes occurred in January and February of this year. Original band member Chris "Critter" Fuqua rejoined the group in January after a few years off (first to rehab from alcohol and second to pursue a college degree) while Willie Watson left the group shortly after that to pursue a solo career in LA.

That's "Critter" sitting down with the banjo.

I'm glad to see Fuqua back but I hate to see Willie leave. This is Willie (in the red flannel shirt) singing lead on one of my favorite "Crow" tunes, "The Next Go 'Round."

Another of my favorite "Crow" tunes is "Wagon Wheel" which has an interesting history. Ketch Secor, fiddler and original founder of the group along with "Critter," explains some of that history on Wiki...
"I heard a Dylan song that was unfinished back in high school and I finished it . . As a serious Bob Dylan fan, I was listening to anything he had put on tape, and this was an outtake of something he had mumbled out on one of those tapes. I sang it all around the country from about 17 to 26, before I ever even thought, 'oh I better look into this."
Secor eventually resolved the issue.
Secor and Dylan signed a co-writing agreement, and share copyright on the song; agreeing to a "50-50 split in authorship."[
Here's "Wagon Wheel," now officially a Secor/Dylan composition.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Night Moods in Nashville

Here's a couple of "night" songs I've been listening to lately. First, Merle, with "Listening to the Wind."

I think I probably like the old Jim Reeves version of the next song best, but there's something haunting about Isaak's version. Take a look at the lyrics while this one is playing. It's a bit jarring to see the words there, how simple they are.

If there's a writing aesthetic I aspire to, it's this one: simple is best. (Alas, aspiration doesn't always lead to achievement.) Still, it's true--simple words can convey complexity, probably better than the complex (polysyllabic, etc.) ones.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Nashville: New ABC Series' Focus Is the City and Country Music

I was born in Nashville and have lived here most of my life. Over the years I've seen several movies or TV shows that have used the city as a setting or backdrop. Probably the most famous of those was the Robert Altman film, "Nashville" in the year 1975. A high school friend of mine, Bill Jenkins, had a small uncredited speaking role in the film; he played a local TV announcer (which he really was) at the old Berry Field airport who was awaiting the arrival of one of the characters.

Altman's film was a critical and commercial success and won many awards, including an Oscar for best original song ("I'm Easy"). People in the music industry and in Nashville however, were not so pleased with the film. Wiki says (and I remember this response well), "The movie was despised by the main stream country music community at the time of its release; man artists believed it ridiculed their talent and sincerity."

It's a good movie, but I have to agree with the Wiki quote. The country artists and their sincerity were ridiculed. And, by extension, so was the city and Tennessee in general. The film's depiction of country music celebrities and local people continued and expanded the "dumb ignorant hillbilly" stereotype. Several years ago at a conference I welcomed a large group of college educators to "Music City" and mentioned that it was also known as the "Athens of the South." Although I didn't intend it, the line got a laugh.

But, I'm kind of used to that now, after seeing and hearing that stereotype perpetuated throughout my lifetime. The old ignorant redneck stereotype been overused and expanded to the point of meaninglessness. It's grown so that it now includes, not just southerners, but all those yokels in "red" states. And political pundits and biased MSM "journalists" are fond of referring to us as people in the "flyover" states.

I have a strong feeling, however, that ABC TV's new series "Nashville" will not push that old stereotype, at least not as blatantly as did Altman's movie. Judging from what I've read about the series and the promotional videos I've seen, I would say that the characters depicted, at least the main ones, are smarter and much more sophisticated than the old stereotype.

For example, Hayden Panettiere, who plays the young rising star, is said by some critics to be modeled at least a little bit on Taylor Swift. If that's a fair comparison, then making her character fit the dumb yokel stereotype would be impossible. The real Taylor Swift could probably buy ABC.

The Tennessean's blog "music" provides a good overview of the series and its stars, so click on the link if you want more verbal info.

And here's some visual info to whet your appetite, the official trailer for the series.

And here comes my own promo. My two mystery novels, the award winning Blood Country and the paranormal mystery Dream Country, are also set in Nashville and feature characters in the country music business. The links in the left column will take you to a purchase page. Both are now only $0.99 on Kindle and Nook. And I guarantee you won't find any stereotypical rednecks in either of these stories. The productions standards are a little lower for the following video trailer for Blood Country, but so was my budget.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

500 Miles to Nashville and Dream Country

Tennessee writer Jesse Hill Ford is most famous for his novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones which dealt with racial issues in the South. Once in a discussion during a workshop I attended, Ford discussed writing and the types of fiction we in the workshop were experimenting with. Ford advised us to (1) write what we enjoy reading, (2) keep the narrative flowing, (3) create believable characters, and (4) not only put our heroes up a tree but throw rocks at them. It was good advice. And that's what I try to do in my mystery novels. 

Many successful contemporary mystery novels have some sort of angle to set them apart from others in the genre, a sleuth who’s odd or different, or perhaps a specialized setting. I’m working both of these angles. My setting is Nashville, more specifically the country music industry. At present, I’m writing about two sleuths, Joe Rose and Dilly Renfro, and both have certain peculiarities that make them different from other investigators.

Joe Rose, who moonlights as a traditional private eye, is a professional guitarist, but he also works as a sideman on Nashville record sessions. His work as a side guitarist gives him an insider’s perspective on many of the stars and the industry itself, but also adds a dimension to his character. Rose, who’s the narrator in my first novel, Blood Country, is a big, rough and tumble guy with a smart mouth. He's quick to anger and has a problem controlling his violent tendencies. Rose is fictional but if he lived, physically he'd look a little bit like the ex pro football player and sports analyst Howie Long. 

But there's more to Rose than the tough guy exterior, he shows patience when dealing with his clients and has an unswerving loyalty to them. He's also a skilled and accomplished guitarist and his music artistry shows his sensitivity. 

My latest central character or heroine, Dilly Renfro, is featured in my latest novel, Dream Country. She is the daughter of a rich and legendary country singer, Doyle Renfro, as big a star in his day as Eddy Arnold. Dilly was shot in the head by a robber in a mini-market holdup a year ago which has led to some interesting changes in her life. She has become more assertive, admitted to her family she’s a lesbian, and, most importantly, discovered she has precognitive dreams. Besides using her dreams to find her half-sister’s killer, she hires attorney Harry Hardin and Private Investigator Joe Rose to help in her quest.

She too is of course fictional, but I imagine that she would look a lot like the young woman on the cover of Dream Country if she were real. That's one reason I selected this picture for the cover. Check her out in the cover pic in the right column. 

Why Nashville, why country music? In it's original and traditional forms, it's a music that is "of the people." After laboring in the hot sun all day, families in the south would sit on their porches or out under a shade tree and make music. They played stringed instruments--guitars, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. Some of it was music they had heard their mothers and fathers sing, but there was definitely nothing commercial about it at first. Just people expressing themselves in song. And then the world heard the Carter family, Ernest V. Stoneman, and Jimmy Rodgers on records, and an industry was born. Today, people from Japan, to Germany, to Canada, to California, to Tony, Alabama, listen to and enjoy this music.

Country music deals with basic and universal human issues, that 's why it speaks to and for people around the world, as in this great song by Bobby Bare, "500 Miles Away from Home."
Another reason I like the music is that I’m a Nashville native and I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music on the radio. I’m not directly connected to the country music business, but I have friends who are song writers and producers. I also know three or four chords on my old Silvertone flattop (I think knowing a few guitar chords is the law in these parts). And I’ve written a song or two, just for fun and my own entertainment. 

One of my students back in the day was a session musician, and he arranged for my wife and I to cut a demo of my songs in the famous Woodland Studio, where artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Gordon Lightfoot have recorded through the years. It was late night, off the books, and the musicians were paid with a case of beer. We had a blast. And now, several years later, I've found a use for a couple of these old songs in my first two mystery novels. Funny how things you forget about still pop up from time to time and reveal themselves to be most useful.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Let the Mystery Be: Iris DeMent

Have you ever missed out on something really good?

I have. Plenty of times. But this is clearly, one very special case.

I wonder...

How could it have happened? What else was so danged important in 1993? Where was I? What was I doing?What other mistakes was I mistaking at the time?

Almost two decades have passed. Why didn't I hear it somewhere, at a friend's house, on the radio, somewhere?

It's only a song.

Only a song, you say.

No. It's more than that. It's my song.

No, I didn't write it.

Iris DeMent did.

I wish I had written it. It speaks to me, for me. It speaks my mind. It's my song.

It's a song that reflects part of my (work in progress) soul.

A song that simply, eloquently nails the point --  the one I've been trying to make or discover for probably 50 years -- to the wall.

A song that now I've heard, tonight, for the first time, I won't ever forget.

Don't say, "better late than never."

I really don't want to hear that.

Not right now.

I'd much rather hear the song again. "Let the Mystery Be" by Iris DeMent.

Let the Mystery Be by Iris DeMent
(Lyrics copied from Cowboy Lyrics site)

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you're gone you're gone forever, and some say you're gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they're comin' back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Instrumental break.

Some say they're goin' to a place called Glory and I ain't saying it ain't a fact.
But I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory and I don't like the sound of that.
Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
But I choose to let the mystery be.

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rank Stranger

Have you ever been back to the town where you were born and lived for awhile as a child, say from birth to your 7th or 8th year? Back to the place where you were in the early dawn of your youth?

What a strange feeling it is.

Because you've grown up and your perspective has changed, everything that once looked so big, is now much smaller. And, since fifty or sixty years have passed, everything is different.

You remember the funniest things.

There's the little frame house on Richland you lived in back in the '40s. It was raining and you sat on the porch swing playing a cardboard horse race game where you spun a little needle around and you moved each horse piece accordingly. Citation always seemed to win. You can still smell the clean rain and hear the soft rumble of summer thunder.

Out on Main, there's another old house you remember. You were sitting astride your bike back in 1945 when Jerry's Mom came out of the house crying and said the war was over. You'd never seen anyone cry because they were happy before. The old house still stands, but its paint is peeling and the porch sags.

The highway bridge on Main, right by the shirt factory hasn't changed. The thick concrete top rail is still rough to your hand, but you have to bend down now to see between the short concrete cylinders supporting it. The creek looks smaller than it did in the '40s. You remember that you and Kenneth sometimes slipped under the metal rail at the edge of the bridge, climbed down the rocks, and walked on the smooth brown stones to a spot under the bridge where you could see the crawdads and minnows swimming in the shallow water.

Uptown now, on the square, there's the old insurance office where your Aunt Lellye used to work. You spent a few afternoons in there spinning around on her wooden lean back desk chair, watching the ceiling fans, or watching Mr. Smith play with his straw boater hat. He was a skinny guy who wore seersucker suits and bow ties and made you laugh.

The little wooden bandstand in the center of the square is gone now and probably forgotten. That was where they had a radio set up back in 1948 and you and your grandma were in the crowd listening as the presidential election returns came in. You remember the smell of cigars and cigarettes. The crowd seemed happy, yet quiet, listening carefully to the words on the radio. Occasionally, when the radio announcer said something, a few people would clap or cheer or sometimes laugh.

Scott's drugstore where you drank your first milkshake stands empty now, its brick facade faded and worn. Blind Mr. Adams' little market where you sometimes bought Double Bubble or Super Bubble gum was torn down long ago.

All of the older people have passed away, and the young ones you knew moved on long ago. If you see someone on the street or perhaps you stop in a store for a coke, the people look strange, you don't recognize anyone. And they look at you the same way, like you're a complete and utter outsider, a stranger, a rank stranger.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Guitar Lust and Fiction Love

I may have written a post about my guitar before. But I'm too lazy to check this, and I have CRS anyway, so it's possible that this first part of the post is redundant. If I've told you this before, bear with me. I own a Silvertone 1220 jumbo flat top guitar, manufactured for Sears by the Harmony corporation. My wife Joyce gave it to me as a birthday gift back in 1968 when I was 28 years old.

I think my old Silvertone cost about $69 or $70 when new. It's in pretty good shape for its age and for all the rough treatment it has received over the years from grandkids, cast party participants, etc. I don't have a good picture of it, but here's one that looks just like it, color, pickguard, bridge, nut, tuning pegs, and everything else as well.

I'm absolutely not an accomplished guitarist. I just make the basic 5 or 6 chords and can pick out a few (very few) melodies. But I've really enjoyed this old acoustic AXE over the years. It increased my love of music and in particular helped grow my love of (and lust for) all guitars. My old Silvertone led me to appreciate the fine quality and workmanship of factory made instruments like Martin and Gibson, and those smaller independent operations like Forbus Hand Made Guitars for example, whose shop is in Belfast, Tennessee, about 70 miles from Nashville. Follow the link and take a look at some of John Forbus' creations.

One of my other passions is reading fiction.

Since I was about ten years old, I've loved to read, especially fiction. That year my uncle Sid gave me a copy of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I was hooked. I began to read other stories about baseball players and cowboys and soldiers. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was totally immersed in Science Fiction, particularly the juvenile stories of Robert Heinlein, such as Space Cadet and Time for the Stars. I liked Asimov too, and Clarke, and anyone else who could spin a good yarn.

 I began trying to write fiction myself in the '80s and finished a couple of manuscripts, one spy thriller and a mystery. The spy novel was at first conditionally accepted by Zebra but then three months later, the imprint was taken over by another publisher and my manuscript was returned. Que sera.

I finished some other mystery manuscripts in the '90s and when I retired, began and finished a couple of political satires (one of those was Liberalstein). After that I spent several months revising the manuscript that became Blood Country.

When I put together Blood Country, I made use my love of guitars. I gave my musician characters guitars that I couldn't afford but had heard or read about. Fiction works that way for the reader and the writer. A writer imagines something and it becomes semi real for him and for the reader. In a story you can go anywhere and do anything--even own and play some very expensive guitars.

To start with, the cover of Blood Country features a classic Gibson SG solid body electric guitar. (That's a picture of a Gibson SG below and if you look over to the left column near the top you'll see a picture of the book cover.) Even though the novel is set in Nashville and its country music industry, the SG is usually associated with rock musicians.

But I loved the shape of the guitar and I found an image that I felt meshed really well with my cover color scheme. As you can see, my cover SG is a black one with special gold humbucker pickups, gold knobs, and gold fret inlays up the neck. The background color of the cover is red and the main title letters are gold outlined in black. The subtitle, A Nashville Sideman Mystery, is in black. I believe a cover image and title should tell the reader at a glance what the book is about. What do you think, does the Blood Country cover work in that way?

There are some other guitars in the book as well. My private eye, Joe Rose, is also a guitar sideman. He owns several guitars but the one he uses in several scenes is an old 1940 Martin D-18. Why a '40 model? It's kinda silly but 1940 was the year I was born. Maybe my hidden motive was to suggest that something made in 1940 could still make good music, or in my case, a good mystery novel.

An old Martin like this is also probably way too expensive for me, but it's not too much of an investment for a pro sideman. By having Rose own and use it, I get to vicariously enjoy it myself.

Here's a You Tube video of a guy playing a 1940 Martin D-18, like the one I imagined Joe Rose would play in my novel. Notice that though the color is different, the shape and pick guard look a lot like my old Silvertone. The video guy is a pretty danged good picker too.

One of the main characters in the book is Vern Hamlin, a super star country guitarist, songwriter, and publisher. At one point he's playing on a Gibson Dove flattop. He tells Rose that it's one of many guitars that he owns but this one is extra special in that it was once owned and played by Elvis. Never in my wildest dreams could I own a guitar Elvis owned. But in the novel I get to do that vicariously again through Hamlin. It's pretty easy to imagine a character like Hamlin, whose superstar status has made him very rich, not only owning the Elvis Dove, but playing the hell out of it.

There are some nice pictures of the Elvis Gibson Dove guitar here but image downloading at the site was blocked which prevented me from putting in a picture of the guitar I had in mind for Vern. So, I found this You Tube video of a guy playing Japanese manufacturer Aspen's copy of the Gibson Dove. This one is the Aspen Dove DH32. It looks almost exactly like Elvis' Gibson and the guy playing it makes it ring like a bell. Listen closely and you'll hear a little "House of the Rising Sun" creep in there.

I have lust in my heart for these fine guitars (even the Aspen copy). But this stuff is kinda like a marriage to me. I'm still happily bound and committed to my old Silvertone 1220.

By the way...I'm still selling the Kindle edition of Blood Country for $.99. You can also buy a paperback copy for $17.95.

Click on the copy of the book near the top of the left column and you'll be linked to my amazon page where you can choose either the Kindle or the paper copy of Blood Country.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Old Country Drinking Songs: The Alcohol of Fame

You push through the door and head toward the bar. The light is low and warm and the bottles look like little gods of forgiveness on the glass shelf. There's a pungent smokey smell in the air and you see a guy sitting alone at the end of the bar who's bent over his drink. A half smoked cigar rests in the ashtray in front of him and smoke curls up toward the ceiling. Two men at a table behind you suck on their brown beer bottles like a baby sucks his mother's milk.

You order a shot of whiskey and a beer and sit there thinking about her. How many months have passed now, how many years? And still her face. The bitch. What'd she have to go and do that to you for? It was all her damn fault.

There's the sound of change being fed into the jukebox on the side wall. A guy makes his selections slowly, deliberately, like the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. After an eternity, the music starts.

But you ain't in a hurry, you're just gonna sit here and drink.

You tap the bar by your shot glass and the bartender pours. You remember that night. Her face pops up now into your consciousness like the triangular fortune on one of those black eight balls you had as a child. Her face, your fortune forever, says, "no, not now, not ever." That was the night she couldn't take any more.

It's as clear in your mind as yesterday or clearer since you can't remember yesterday at all. The clock on the dash of your old Ford said four a.m. The bars had all finally closed. You leaned forward and put your head on the steering wheel. The horn blew. Lights went on across the street at the Johnsons. Yeah. You were home drunk again.

You tap the bar again and the bartender gives you another. You toss it back and take another hit on the beer. A woman comes in, a redhead. Her dress is a pale green and it hangs on her skinny frame like a faded and worn out tent. She's in her late forties and her wrinkled face looks like the saddest map you've ever tried to read. She sits at a table in the corner, lights a cigarette, and orders a bottle of cheap wine.

You throw back another shot and wipe your mouth with your sleeve. Then you think about the pint you had earlier. Was that at lunch or later in the afternoon? Or was it just before you came in here? You're not sure. Hell. Maybe you've already passed the Pint of No Return.

You kill the rest of the beer. You look around. The place is empty. Bartender stops polishing a glas and points to his watch. Yeah, you think, I could be that guy, they oughtta put me in the "Alcohol of Fame."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lonestar Blues

Here's a good one for whatever ails you. Lubbock, TX native Delbert McClinton and Lonestar Blues.

Death and the Purple Robe

In the sophomore literature classes I taught, we used to read a play called Everyman. This play, from the late 15th century in England, is categorized by scholars as an allegorical morality play, a play that uses personifications to teach a lesson about life. A morality play is in effect a dramatized sermon with the purpose of getting Christians to live their life in a moral manner that will ensure their salvation. Though it sounds foreboding and a bit morbid, the play actually has quite a bit of humor.

This link will lead you to a good study guide if you want to get the complete plot and other information.

In the beginning of Everyman, the central character, Everyman (that would be all of us at some point in our lives), is confronted by a mysterious character named Death who basically says, it's time for you to come with me (die). Everyman is allowed some brief time to get anyone he can to go along with him. He asks his friends, his relatives, and his material goods to go with him. When they discover where he's going they all offer excuses, some of which are lol funny. In the end, only Everyman's Good Deeds will accompany him on his final journey.

The personification of Death is a technique that's been used in other literary and musical works. One of my favorite bluegrass songs is Ralph Stanley's "O Death," in which the singer (Stanley does it A capella) directly addresses Death, who has come for him. Like Everyman, the singer-narrator in this song tries to talk his way out of Death's invitation. The song gained a larger audience after Stanley performed it in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

Gospel has been a significant part of bluegrass music from its origins. The Stanley Brothers (Ralph and his brother Carter) had many excellent ones in their repertoire, including "Rank Strangers," "In Heaven We'll Never Grow Old," and "Angel Band." This tune is by Odell McLeod and is called "Purple Robe." It describes the scene from the Bible where Jesus is falsely accused and brought to trial before Pontius Pilate.

The focus in the song is on the inhumanity of the mob and the suffering and innocence of the accused. I first heard this song on The Vanderbilt University radio station back in the early '80s (they had a bluegrass show on Sunday afternoons at the time) and spent a few of those pre-internet days trying to learn the chords on my guitar. I really like the fine, clear guitar picking on this one, as well as the great harmonies (that mix of the high tenor and the resonating bass voice is simply outstanding).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Townes Van Zandt Part II: No Place to Fall

Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997, at the age of 52, exactly 44 years to the day that one of his greatest influences in music, Hank Williams, died.

Van Zandt seems to me to have been a trapped man. What I mean is that he was this one odd thing, while the world wanted something else, something more polished, something ideal, or at the very least, something familiar, something they could get a handle on.

The world expected him to fit into a certain category and live a certain way. It wasn't that he had other plans. He just didn't want or couldn't follow their plans. And he certainly didn't fit into any of the identities or niches they imagined for him.

He was boxed in, imprisoned in a kind of psychological Alcatraz. He was trapped by others' expectations, the terrible darkness his manic visions showed him, the poetry his genius gave him to express those visions, and by his own very human weaknesses and dependencies.

He was born into an old and influential and relatively wealthy Texas family. He was very smart and they imagined he could be a lawyer or possibly a senator. But Van Zandt seemed to spend his life trying to create an identity that was as far removed from that as possible. He became the stranger. The down and out-outsider. A guy on the edge of the abyss. An alcoholic. A veteran of one too many mornings in rehab. A strung out addict, who two years before he died, rode an old 1984 Honda Shadow motorcycle or drove around in an even older Jimmy pickup.

When he began his career in music in the mid '60s, he played in the Jester's Lounge in Houston, doing covers of Bob Dylan songs as well as covers of songs originated by bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. But thanks to a meeting with Mickey Newbury, he ended up in Nashville in 1968 where musician and producer Cowboy Jack Clement began to try and fit him into the country niche, both as a writer and as a performer.

You've read the words to his songs. You've heard Van Zandt sing. Did he sound like any country singer in the late '60s, early '70s? Did he sound or act like Jimmy Dean, for example? Did he write like Dallas Frazier, for example? Jimmy Dean had some big '60s hits and a TV show and he did a lot for country music in that decade. But Van Zandt wasn't that kind of guy. Frazier wrote some great tunes in that era, but can you even use the word "tune" to describe a song like "Tecumseh Valley?"

After high school Van Zandt's family had wanted him to go to college. He went. But, worried about his binge drinking and depression, they brought him home in the spring of his sophomore year and put him in the hospital where he received three months of insulin shock therapy. This "therapy" put a patient in daily comas over several weeks. Van Zandt lost all his childhood memories as a result.

Van Zandt was manic depressive, or as it's sometimes labeled, bi-polar. He also had tremendous poetic and verbal skills which he employed as he tried to write himself out of those terrible dark places the manic episodes many times took him to. You can hear the ache in the words and in his voice as he sings about the darkness his illness helped him see. It's not imagined, it's a very real darkness most of us are too busy or "sane" to see. Facing that terror, and making art out of it, is a most noble and courageous human endeavor. But it doesn't ultimately lead to the solution of the problem. When the song is finished and the ink has dried on the paper, for a manic depressive the big Shadow still looms down the hall.

"No Place to Fall" was apparently written in or before 1973 when it was recorded on the "Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas" album. According to Wiki, the "Old Quarter" album wasn't released until 1977 and in the next year, the song also became part of the 1978 album "Flyin' Shoes."

In an earlier Van Zandt post I used Nanci Griffiths version of his "Techumseh Valley," called by some "the saddest song ever written." The song tells of a poor young woman who came over the hill from Spencer down into Tecumseh Valley. Her Pa had told her to find a job and make enough to buy some coal to bring back. But things didn't work out for her. Her Pa died and she chose a life on the streets. In time she was crushed by that life. Here's a couple of verses near the end.

She saved enough to get back home 
When spring replaced the winter 
But her dreams were denied, her Pa had died 
The word come down from Spencer 

She turned to whorin' out on the streets 
With all the lust inside her 
It was many a man returned again 
To lay himself beside her 

This version is by Van Zandt himself. As you listen, look into the poet's eyes. That's the Shadow reflected there.

Van Zandt might make art out of the Shadow, but his eyes also tell you that making that poem, making art won't be the end of the battle. The Shadow ain't goin' nowhere.

But the eyes also tell you that making art ain't the same as running. As a matter of fact, making art is one way of taking a stand against the darkness. I'm glad some of us have the courage to do that.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Storms Are on the Ocean

I'm experimenting (playing around) with my blog template. It may change several times over the next few days. Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions about the look of the blog or its content, please comment. 

The storms are on the ocean.

And yesterday they moved through Tennessee. A tornado watch was out for all of middle TN until 8 PM, but the focus, the paper said, was on the northern counties. We made it through the day in our area without any severe storms or tornadoes. But three people were killed in other parts of the state. The Weather channel says more storms are expected to arrive Friday. Our state is beautiful, lush and green, but March and April are stormy times in Tennessee.

I hope there's only a pleasant breeze and warm sunshine wherever you are.

The Carter Family recorded "The Storms Are on the Ocean" in 1927 and released it (with "Single Girl, Married Girl" on the other side) in 1928. This was their second record and it was very popular. Over time, it's become a country standard and has been recorded by many singers since, including this version by Sharon White and Rickey Scaggs.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hobo Music: Crack in the Boxcar Door

Obama's bailed out the banks and the U.S. auto industry and he's added over 6 trillion dollars to the national debt. And yet, there's still lots of people out of work.

As far as I know, nobody has decided to hit the rails. Yet.

Back in the '30s lots of out of work guys and others who just wanted avoid it did just that. There was a fellow on my mother's side of the family, one of her aunts' husbands who lost his job, left his family, and hit the rails. He hoboed arround and never came back. Until about 40 years later. Just showed up one day and knocked on her door. She had remarried and her second husband had died leaving her an elderly widow. The old hobo may have wanted forgiveness, I'm not sure. And I don't know if he got it. All I know is he didn't come back around after that.

There are plenty of songs about hobos. Most of them romanticize the life. Some of them offer insights. Hank Snow's "Crack in the Boxcar Door" is a romanticized view of the freedom that the rambling hobos were said to enjoy.

Jimmy Rodgers "Hobo's Meditation," is still a bit romanticized but does provide the listener with some insights into hobo psychology. The hobo asks, "will we have to work for a living, or can we continue to roam?" It seems clear that he prefers to roam about the country depending on a little part time work and handouts as opposed to holding down a steady job. 

He wonders if heaven will be a utopian-like place where he is equal to the rich man and where he will always have (unearned?) money to spare. The hobo narrator in the song is also fully aware that not too many people respect him.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Carter Family Sunday

The Carter Family was country music's first vocal group and recorded songs from the beginning of country music in 1927 on through the '30s until they disbanded in 1944. The members included Alvin Pleasant (A. P.) Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter who was married to his brother Ezra (not in the group). Sara and Maybelle were also cousins. All were raised in Southwestern Virginia, in the Clinch Mountains in an area called Poor Valley.

Sara sang the lead vocals, Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group with her eventually famous and influential "Carter Scratch" style of guitar playing. A. P. usually sang harmony and background vocals but sometimes sang lead.

They recorded first in Bristol, Tennessee, in August of 1927, under the direction of Ralph Peer. The Victor Talking Machine company released some of their records that fall; by 1930 they had sold over 300,000 records.

Sara divorced A.P. in 1936, remarried and moved to California with her new husband's family. The group continued making music but finally disbanded in 1944. The second generation of the Carter Family consisted of Mother Maybelle and her daughters Anita, June, and Helen. They, along with their electric guitar player, a fellow named Chet Atkins, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.

Mother Maybelle and her daughters (minus Atkins) carried on the Carter tradition in the late '50s and '60s, riding the folk wave. Their appearance on Johnny Cash's second TV show in 1969 (June married Johnny in 1968) introduced their traditional style to an even larger audience.

The song "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was written in 1926 and was first recorded by the Carter Family in 1936. This was the year that Sara left A.P. but that's her voice and Maybelle's on the harmonies. In this great video, put together by shallowford, you can see a sad wistfulness in Sara's face and resignation in A.P.'s.

Sara, it seems, was not as ambitious or driven as was her husband A.P. who was gone a lot during the early days of their marriage, traveling Appalachia looking for songs. Plus, he had a temper. In A.P.'s absence in 1933, Sara fell for a fellow named Coy Bays. They had a somewhat public courtship (people knew about it) that went on for almost three years.

So it's clear that there were already strains and tensions in the marriage when the Carter Family recorded "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in 1936. I suppose it's one of those rare instances when the emotion of a song is very close to the emotional state of (at least two of) its performers.
(By the way, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was released again in 1950 by orchestra leader Blue Baron (Harry Freidman) and reached #19 on Billboard's chart. Baron's version added the spoken narration that Elvis Presley used in his hit 1960 recording of the tune.)

I've selected what is arguably the Carter Family's most famous song "Wildwood Flower" to serve as an example of the second generation's work. It was originally recorded in their May 27, 1928, session, but Mother Maybelle and her daughters continued to perform it regularly throughout their career.

It's also the first song I learned to pick on the guitar and remains a favorite of mine. The main reason I used it as an example here though, is to illustrate Maybelle's "Carter Scratch" guitar technique. She has the capo way down the neck but the style is unmistakable.
Finally, let's hear an old country gospel tune to close out Sunday's Carter Family post. Besides suggesting that the '30s were the "end times," "No Depression in Heaven" also presents the idea that in heaven Christians will transcend and triumph over the economic Depression which had wracked the entire country tremendous suffering. "No Depression" was also recorded back in 1936 and was written by James D. Vaughn of Giles County, Tennessee. On a personal note, this is the county where Joyce and I met at Martin College.

Over time "No Depression" has become a most famous Carter tune and has been covered by many artists from the New Lost City Ramblers to Sheryl Crow. The 1936 recording features both Sara and Maybelle on guitars and A.P. sings the lead.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Of Mavericks and a Rose

In my mystery novel Blood Country the narrator and central character is Joe Rose, a Nashville side guitarist and private detective. When I was working on the book, I thought quite a bit about the car I wanted my guitar playing gumshoe to drive.

It may seem a little silly, but what kind of car a character drives is an important signal to the reader. Among other things, it can give the reader information about the character's values, his preferences, and his personality.

The cliche car for book and TV and movie heroes is the Mustang, usually a vintage model. I imagine that goes back to that great Steve McQueen movie Bullit in which he drove the hell out of a dark green one all over San Francisco.

I like Mustangs, but I didn't want Rose to be driving a cliche so the Mustang was out. What I wanted was something that would go along with his tough exterior/tender interior makeup, and something that would make a statement about his ordinariness (just plain Joe), his independence, and his individuality.

Camaros and Firebirds of that late '60s early '70s era are nice, but they just didn't seem right for Rose. I also like Pontiac GTO's but again, for some reason I couldn't picture Rose behind the wheel of one. Joe's cool, but a GTO would maybe be too cool for him. The early '70s Dodge Charger with its brutish hemi is a little more yeoman like in the cool department, which would be good for Joe, but the name itself would suggest that it's the steed for some kind of white knight dude, which Joe is definitely not. At least the knight part.

As I was thinking this over, I remembered a car my son had owned when he was stationed at Shaw AFB in South Carolina in the early '80s. A nice Maverick two door with 302 V8 engine that was manufactured in Cleveland. It was a solid car and, because it was the Ford replacement for the old and light bodied Falcon, it was pretty fast for the time.
I also like both the looks and the name of this car. The fastback style is just sporty enough and since Ford made lots of Mavericks, it underscores Rose's common man status. Also, its name speaks to his independence and stubbornness. All and all, the Maverick seemed to be a nice fit for Joe Rose, a tough Nashville shamus who's not the big star, but the ordinary guitar guy standing just outside the spotlight.
So, after considerable thought, I ended up making Rose's car a 1976 Maverick 2 door, which in the book he says he received in partial payment for his work on a protracted estate case. The car has been in storage for almost thirty years and the heirs tell him they are glad to be rid of it. Rose's Maverick, which is in excellent, almost new shape, is a black two door model with the 302 V8.

The novel is set in Nashville in the music industry. There are plenty of singers and songwriters who've made their names and established their reputations in Music City as mavericks. You might think of Hank Sr., or Waylon, or Willie. or maybe Kristofferson.

There is even one country group called the Mavericks. Their lead singer is Raul Malo who's been on his own recently, but I understand there's a chance they may do a reunion tour this summer.

Here are the Mavericks with lead singer Raul Malo singing "There Goes My Heart," live in Austin, Texas.

P.S. I've been selling quite a few books since before Christmas, mostly in the Kindle format. I think the $.99 price point has helped a lot in getting readers interested, and they are apparently spreading the word. Don't get me wrong. You won't find Blood Country on the Amazon or the NYT best seller lists. At least not yet. But I'm working on it.