The great Guy Clark has died. One of the finest country-folk singers ever and a foundational figure in the alt-country genre, Clark had been sick for some time. He was not only good friends with Townes Van Zandt, but his partner in crazy living, as you can read about in this great late-life profile. Clark was a lot more emotionally stable than Van Zandt so he lived a lot longer, but he did not live a life that was going to reach 90 (although Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still lives so sometimes you can do that). Clark had the songwriting skills to become wealthy if he played the Nashville game. On the other hand, he was pure Texas. He split the difference, moving to Nashville in the early 70s (sort of the opposite of Willie Nelson here) to keep a hand in the business but remained fiercely independent his entire career. This plus his generous nature made him a mentor to a whole generation of young Texas musicians such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.
Guy Clark’s albums themselves are something of a mixed bag. His first album, Old No. 1, contains a number of classics that were often covered by others. This includes the wonderful “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Texas, 1947.”
A lot of people love his second album, Texas Cookin’. I’m a bit more mixed on it, although it does have “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”
The South Coast of Texas is one of the most underrated albums in all of music. This is basically a perfect country album, with each song revolving around some Texas story, from the Kentuckians getting ready to move to Texas in the 19th century in “New Cut Road” to the shrimpers and their ladies in “The South Coast of Texas” to the young man falling in love with an older waitress in the great closing track “Lone Star Motel.” I love this album tremendously.
He had a series of decent albums in the 80s and 90s, culminating in the pretty excellent 1999 album Cold Dog Soup. But probably the place I would start is with his live greatest hits plus some new ones album Keepers, from 1997. Good band, fun performances.
In the end, anyone who can write a song like “The Randall Knife” is worth remembering.
I only saw Guy Clark play once. It was in Santa Fe, maybe around 2004, a show with just him and his long-time guitarist Verlon Thompson. It showed the delicate nature of live performing. Mostly, it was great. But some drunk guy started shouting during the set and Clark walked off until someone kicked him out. Then, right in the middle of the powerful song “Let Him Roll” about a bum who dies still loving the prostitute he knew decades ago, someone’s damn cell phone rang. Totally ruined the moment. Such things happen in a live setting. In recent years, by most accounts, his shows had taken a turn for the worse with his physical health.
Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.
A very busy week so I didn’t read a lot of good music pieces. However, last Friday, I saw Waxahatchee at the Columbus Theater in Providence. It was just Katie Crutchfield and the bass player so it’s a bit less of a band effect as this video, but those are some great songs and I was very happy to be there.
Still managed to squeeze in some new albums this week. Reviews:
Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
The way I feel about electronic music is I think something like a lot of people feel about jazz. I recognize the talent and the noise that moves in interesting ways but I just can’t really get into it. Probably the closest band to something I like that I know of is Oneohtrix Point Never, which is the performance name of Daniel Lopatin. He’s an interesting guy, even writing essays on Kenny G that are well worth reading. Lopatin’s compositions densely swirl around in some genuinely interesting ways. I’d almost listen to this a bunch of times. But I probably won’t. It’s my fault, I admit it.
Now this is interesting. Algiers is an indie rock/punk band with an African-American singer who has a powerful voice that channel slave chants and gospel into some pretty heavy music and heavy lyrics that force the listener to confront the racist past of America. It’s noisy and about slavery. What’s not to like? This is definitely deserving of additional listens.
Bill Fay, Who is the Sender?
Bill Fay had a couple of good albums in the 70s and then disappeared. I used to have one of those albums before it was lost in the Great House Robbery of 2014. He was one of those many weird folkies from the 60s and early 70s making some pretty decent music, in his case rather religiously oriented. In 2012, he put out an EP and in 2015, a full album, Who is the Sender? His voice isn’t what it was in the 70s but this is a very solid album of good quality folk music. He’s still singing religious songs, which might annoy if they weren’t really interesting. Bigger production than you’d expect, but it mostly works well.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Price is a Nashville lifer who finally got an album made after a decade trying. Interesting, it’s the first country album put out on Jack White’s label. She has an interesting back story, including a dead baby and the depression and self-medication that led to a DWI and a weekend in jail. She doesn’t shy away from any of this in her songs. The album itself has a great lead about herself and some other quite good songs about various parts of her life. It’s not a great album as a whole, as there are a few average tracks and she doesn’t really veer away from a pretty basic Nashville sound. But I’m glad she’s received a lot of buzz (even played Saturday Night Live!) and the financial success she deserves. A quality talent and I look forward to her next album.
Eszter Balint, Airless Midnight
Louis C.K. fans know Balint as his love interest in the last season of his show or they know her from her role in Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. She’s worked a lot of television and film and made a few albums as well. This is her first in a decade. Working with Marc Ribot among others, Balint surrounds herself with interesting musicians that make a more compelling palette of sounds than the usual singer-songwriter material. As for the songs themselves, they are eminently listenable, but not something that changed my life.
As always, let this serve as your open thread about all things musical.
Haven’t done one of these in a few weeks. Here’s some interesting articles, album reviews, and tidbits.
Country music humor is almost universally terrible as comedy, from “Uncle Josh” routines performed by any number of old-time and country bands through World War II to Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones to Ray Stevens. Some of the music related to it can be alright. Those old enough to remember Hee Haw have a sense of this. Anyway, there’s a new generation of country music comedy.
This 2004 collaboration between two titans of electronic and experimental jazz isn’t that easy to listen to. This is dense music of swooping sounds and effects from people used to composing and performing challenging music. But is largely a fascinating exploration of sound that I have enjoyed.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
That Sturgill Simpson has been able to do precisely what he wants to do on a country album, making no compromises toward slick Nashville sounds, bro country, country radio, etc. while using string sections, the Dap Kings, and other production elements not common in modern country music that he then releases directly to the top of the charts, is kind of amazing. Hopefully it spawns a new wave of interesting country musicians pushing boundaries.
It’s quite an artistic statement. However, I don’t love the album and don’t think it is as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Basically, I don’t think the songs are of the same quality as the last album. Simpson got a lot of buzz because he covered Nirvana’s “In Bloom” but it might be the album’s weakest song. There are real highlights–“Keep It Between the Lines,” “Sea Stories,” and “Call to Arms” in particular. But there’s nothing quite as rousing as “Long White Line” or “Life of Sin” off the last album. It’s a good record, but it’s not a great record.
Chris Lightcap & Bigmouth, Deluxe
I saw this band in New Haven a couple of weeks ago. It was absolutely outstanding, as is this album. Lightcap is the bassist, the wonderful Craig Taborn is on piano and Fender Rhodes, Gerald Cleaver is the drummer, and the saxophonists are Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek. An outstanding band in any circumstance, but with great tunes and that Fender Rhodes, it plays almost as a rock band at times. This is accessible modern jazz for people who might want to explore a bit, but who might be intimidated by, say, the Mori/Parkins album I reviewed above. Outstanding show, outstanding album.
Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories
Although I liked several of the songs on Fulks’ last album, Gone Away Backwards, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that he retreated from the country of his earlier albums (and specifically the rich 60s country sound of his brilliant Georgia Hard) for a folk/bluegrass sound, which is kind of a default for a lot of country songwriters these days when commercial success doesn’t match hopes. He continues with that instrumentation on Upland Stories, but this is a pretty brilliant set of songs. He mostly eschews the silly (or sometimes downright offensive) humor of some of his earlier albums and the exceptions (Aunt Peg’s New Old Man) are pretty effective and funny. Mostly though this is a great set of songs about both classic country themes and hard life in the present. Really rewarding piece of music, although perhaps there are a couple of weaker tunes toward the end.
John Moreland, In The Throes
John Moreland’s latest album, High on Tulsa Heat, is a revelation. What a great songwriter. So I checked out his first album, In The Throes. It’s like a lot of first albums from very good artists, which is that it’s close to great, but not quite there yet. There are some outstanding songs, such as the one embedded below, and some not quite up to what appears on the next album. But this is a real talent and I look forward to his future work.
And, as part of my lifelong quest to explore the history of country music, here’s few older country albums I recently acquired:
Merle Haggard, A Portrait of Merle Haggard
How good was Merle Haggard in 1969? In this year, he released 6 full albums. A Portrait of Merle Haggard included two #1 hits. One was “Working Man’s Blues.” The other was “Hungry Eyes.” He didn’t even bother releasing another popular song from the album as a single. It goes by the name of “Silver Wings.” The country music strategy of flooding the market with albums during these years usually did not work out well, but when someone was working at this level, it could lead to an astounding number of outstanding albums.
Glen Campbell, Country Boy
This 1975 compilation (I think it’s a compilation anyway) is pure cheese. At its best, the big production of 70s country could work great to accentuate excellent songwriting and singing, such as Billy Sherrill’s productions of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. But with weaker material, it just adds to the weakness. Even with his big hits like “Country Boy” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” included, its primary value today is an exercise in nostalgia. Given that Campbell had more talent than the average singer of the era, the production quality of 70s country makes a lot of the period’s music unlistenable.
Jerry Reed, When You’re Hot, You’re Hot
Jerry Reed was a heck of a guitar player. And he certainly had a lot of energy. He could also sing some really dumb songs and some super cheesy songs too. This was his biggest hit. The album is, well, OK. Did he have the emotional range to cover “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”? Not really. Kind of interesting cover of “Thank You Girl.” Not my favorite version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The songs he wrote were of mixed quality. The production of the hit song in the video below is very 70s.
Since I assume that you all, like me, listen to music for 12-14 hours of each and every day, this is your place for various and sundry musical conversations.
Were you thinking, I really need to know what Jacobin has to say about Merle Haggard? Probably not. Unfortunately, Jacobin decided to publish a Merle Haggard obituary of sorts, by Jonah Walters. It is, without exaggeration, the worst essay I have ever seen in that publication and one of the worst essays on music I have ever read. It is essentially an exercise in Aesthetic Stalinism, arguing that Merle Haggard was a terrible person and overrated artist because he was supposedly the voice of American reaction for a half-century. This is not only wrong politically, it’s wrong musically. Let’s break it down.
The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place, a revanchist fantasy where the democratizing momentum of the 1960s never swept from sinful coastline cities into the pure heart of the middle country; where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites; where women existed only to break hearts and be heartbroken (generally in lonesome small-town diners); and where the most working-class people could hope for was martyrdom, not liberation.
This is ridiculous and just wrong. “Where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites.” Huh. Well, what about “Irma Jackson”? What about “Go Home”? Both are songs about interracial relationships broken up by racists. Haggard actually wanted to release “Irma Jackson” instead of “Fighting Side of Me” as the followup to “Okie from Muskogee” but the record company overruled him. Yet such facts never get in Walters’ way. Merle was not singing about black oppression per se, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable standard by which to judge the politics of a musician. Moreover, there are plenty of minor songs that at least express a certain level of solidarity with working people of other races. For instance, “The Immigrant” off Haggard’s relatively minor 1978 album I’m Always on a Mountain When a Fall (“It’s Been a Great Afternoon” was the big hit on this album) is not particularly sophisticated or a great song but it’s a song about undocumented migrants that welcomes them into the country and hopes they will come back when they are inevitably deported. Walters’ argument on Merle Haggard’s catalog is absolutely incorrect.
As for the line about women, welcome to country music. And this is of course the real problem with Walters’ article. He is dismissive of country music as an art form because he doesn’t like the politics and considers the entire genre a revanchist fantasy. More on this later. Songs about heartbreak are the centerpiece of country music songwriting, especially before 1990. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette sang about women in these terms just as much as Merle Haggard or any other supposedly sexist male artist. One feels that Walters is the type of lefty who makes an exception for Johnny Cash, but dismisses the entire genre otherwise as the music of racists and sexists.
For Haggard, working-class allegiance meant political conservatism. He shape-shifted to suit the times, but never wavered in his reactionary posture. He was a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters. There are precious few lyrics in his songbook worth defending.
Now this my friends is what you call a selective timeline. Among other things, I wonder why Walters doesn’t discuss the Iraq War? Actually, he does, later in the article:
But no amount of waffling could challenge the red-blooded conservatism of his some of his fans, including the contemporary country star Toby Keith, whose Iraq War–mongering sing-along “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” was inspired by Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
He blames Merle Haggard for Toby Keith. Interesting. I wonder if there were any county musicians who opposed the Iraq War? Oh yeah, this guy:
A new Merle Haggard song that is critical of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq is being rushed to thousands of radio stations around the United States.
Tom Thacker, vice president of Hag Records, says the song “That’s the News” is generating intense interest around the country from media and fans.
“We’re mailing it out as we speak,” Thacker said. “It’s going to a broad range of stations.”
“It’s another one of Merle Haggard’s social commentaries,” he said. “This time it’s kind of opposed to the tone of ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.”‘
At the core of Walters’ analysis is that Haggard wasn’t the right kind of political artist. By representing white populism and not engaging in fantasies of global revolution, Haggard somehow sold out the American working class, who clearly didn’t want to hear his messages as he is only one of the most popular artists in the history of recorded music.
The same year, he released “Working Man’s Blues.” This was a year in which workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy, replete with better entitlements and expanded leisure time.
But according to “Working Man’s Blues,” to be a proud member of the working class was to be a dutiful employee, arriving to work on time in the morning, drinking beer in the evening, and denying the need for welfare all the while.
First, saying “workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy” is both true and not true at the same time. Yes, there were uprisings at Lordstown and elsewhere through the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean that a majority of workers believed such things per se, that they felt their popular music had to represent those viewpoints if they did, or that wanting to go home and drink a beer is somehow anti-political or antithetical to their interests. As I have stated elsewhere, one problem the labor left has is that it assumes an empowered worker is a worker who is going to spend their off-hours engaged in meetings for democratic unions or anti-racist meetings. Sometimes it is. It’s also empowering to be able to go home and watch a bad CBS comedy, or have time to watch your kid’s soccer game, if that’s what you want to do. Empowerment is not “do what I think you should do.” Empowerment actually means “you have choices to do what you want to do.”
Walters clearly has not actually read anything on Haggard either, which is too bad since the literature on him is voluminous. He mentions that Haggard played for Pat Nixon’s birthday in 1973 as central to his argument that Haggard was an unreconstructed conservative. What he doesn’t do is discuss how Haggard actually responded to that event. Jefferson Cowie does detail this event, in his great book Stayin’ Alive, which Walters desperately needs to read if he wants to write about the white working-class. Haggard described it as a horrible experience. He remembered, “I felt like I was coming out for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.” That’s the evidence Walters should be using. But instead, the actual fact of Haggard playing at this event is a sign of his unreconstructed politics in this incredibly shallow essay.
Walters then goes on to somehow blame Haggard’s nostalgic songs about the 1980s as prepping for Reagan’s election but has no evidence at all to even begin supporting this point.
The point of course is not that Merle Haggard is a progressive hero. He’s not. Merle Haggard’s core belief was that he liked money. He acted accordingly. He wrote a wide variety of songs, some of which expressed conservative fantasies, others that expressed quite progressive and nuanced politics.
But for all too large swaths of the left, dealing with the actually existing white working class and their cultural forms is far more difficult than fantasizing about the idealized white working class in their minds. See this absurdity of a paragraph:
It’s a tragedy that Haggard adopted a regressive, individualistic politics of misplaced nostalgia. In other circumstances, his life experience might have guided him toward the opposite, toward a progressive politics of collective action.
This is Jacobin magazine, a magazine hoping to spawn a new revolutionary politics. You might call it a tragedy that white people don’t generally respond to cross-racial collective action, but the point if you believe that should not be that Merle Haggard represents everything wrong with America because he didn’t write songs from the precise political perspective you personally espouse. It should be that we need to learn from Haggard’s songs to tap into tenets of white populism where the left might build a broader class-based politics. But so often on the left, talking about the white working class as they actually exist, turns into a snobbish dismissal, whether of actual people or of their cultural forms. That this essay is being published at the same time that the same magazine has published many essays supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is quite telling. As the 2016 elections have shown, we are in a moment of an upsurge of white populism. A lot of it has supported Trump. But not all of it. Sanders has had some success among the white working class. He’s the kind of politician that can provide a real voice for white working-class people. Jacobin supports that, but seems to also lack actual white working-class voices that make these people real. It’s easy for the left to talk about the working-class from a generalized perspective. But Walters’ essay shows how quickly many leftists fall into a knee-jerk belief that the actual living breathing white working class is a political failure and thus evaluates their cultural forms from that perspective. Walters attempts to avoid this in his last paragraph:
We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.
“We understand what Haggard didn’t” is perhaps the most condescending phrase of all time. It screams of “let me tell you, poor whites, what the real and correct politics are.” It says that Haggard’s songs, or at least the few cherry-picked songs to support this essay and not the actual catalog of Merle Haggard, are actually wrong and we now know better. In union organizing training, you are taught to listen carefully to the people you are talking to and build arguments for unions based upon their concerns, not your concerns and your talking points. This is good advice. I have to feel that Jonah Walters would be a terrible organizer if that was his job because he would condescend rather than listen, spout talking points rather than consider the real desires of the people he was organizing.
Jonah Walters’ article is a failure as a piece of musical journalism. It’s a failure at understanding that art and the artist’s biography are not the same thing. It’s a failure as a history of Merle Haggard. It’s a failure as a political argument. It’s a failure at understanding anything about the white working class. It is an absolutely terrible essay and Jacobin should be ashamed to have published it. This feels more appropriate to be published with the recent anti-white working-class articles at The National Review than in a leftist publication.
West African kings understood that music is power. They made sure their official audiences were accompanied by song. They traveled with music, too: when the king of Mali returned from a journey, wrote the fourteenth-century scholar Al-’Umari, “a parasol and a standard are held over his head as he rides,” while ahead of him came musicians playing “drums, guitars, and trumpets, which are made out of the horns of the country with a consummate art.” The legendary chronicler Ibn Battuta described similarly how when the king of Mali arrived for an audience, “the singers come out in front of him with gold and silver stringed instruments in their hands and behind them about 300 armed slaves.” A 1655 account of the court of Askia Mohammed-Gâo, the seat of the Songhay empire, described him surrounded by “instrumentalists who played the guitar” along with other instruments, sitting “under the pasha’s tent, behind the dais.”
These writers used various Arabic terms to describe the instruments: Al-Umari used tanbūr or tunbūr, a Persian term for a long-necked instrument, while Ibn Battuta used a term rendered as kanābir in the 1922 French edition, quinburī in the more recent English one. And the “Kano Chronicle,” first published in 1804 on the basis of earlier materials, mentions a stringed instrument called the “Algaita” that was requested by a Kano ruler for his court in 1703. But these writers were using the terms for their own familiar stringed instruments, so we can’t assume that this was the name used by the musicians themselves or draw conclusions about the construction of the instruments beyond a general analogy.
There is a fascinating glimpse in a series of metal plaques from the thirteenth-century Kingdom of Benin. These renderings, the earliest visual depictions of West African instruments, include only one figure holding a stringed instrument: a small harp. A gold sculpture from the Akan people of Ghana, however—dated sometime between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries—shows a musician playing a stringed instrument with a curved neck and a rounded resonator that looks as if made from a calabash.
Miles Davis, beyond Kind of Blue. Is it OK for me to say that I don’t even really love Kind of Blue all that much? I mean, I recognize its greatness, but I don’t actually like listening to it more than once or twice a year. I’d say it’s maybe my 7th or 8th favorite Miles album. Basically, I need more than an album of ballads. This is also why I don’t much listen to Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck in any regular rotation. Call me a Neanderthal, it’s OK.
I was lucky enough to see Wussy play in Boston a few weeks ago. It was typically outstanding. That band also excels at superior between song banter. A portion of the band was on KEXP last month. Check it out.
Some album reviews:
Cracker, Berkeley to Bakersfield
I’ve always mostly enjoyed Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker albums because I do like David Lowery. Of course, one of his strengths has also always been one of his weaknesses, which is that his songs are so ironic and cynical. So you listened to the albums, even if there were too many instrumental numbers, and you enjoyed them, but you could never take the songs all the seriously. But Berkeley to Bakersfield is a pretty-much irony free set of songs that make up what really are two entirely distinct albums. The first is a bunch of leftist political songs that revolve around Berkeley with a rock sound. The second is Lowrey’s ode to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. So it’s a hard country album with the lovelorn and nostalgic lyrics typical of country albums, this time with a particular focus on working-class California. And both work really well. I thoroughly enjoyed both discs. This is a sure buy.
Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Somehow I had never heard this before. And while it might be kind of pointless to review classic albums, why not. It’s fascinating that RCA kept his under wraps for 20 years because it was too raw. It is a little raw and that’s a good thing for me. Sometimes I have found Cooke too smooth and I don’t listen to him a whole lot, but this was a real revelation to me. In the realm of live recordings by R&B artists of the period, I wouldn’t say this is as good as James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or Ray Charles at Newport. But those are true all-time greats. On the other hand, I like it better than Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, which I think really suffers from too much crowd noise. There’s plenty of crowd noise here too, maybe a little more than I like.
Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird is Home
Another lovely collection of songs for Kristian Matsson, the Swedish singer who performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. And while with his voice he sometimes gets called another Dylan imitator, I find it highly expressive. It’s really a very powerful voice, one of the most expressive in recent times. The lyrics are best not followed too closely; these aren’t story songs. There is also a bit more going on here musically than normal, with most of the instruments played by Matsson and he does well enough with them. I don’t know that I like this as much as I loved the brilliant The Wild Hunt, but this is a very solid collection of songs.
Los Hijos de la Montaña, Los Hijos de la Montaña
This is a pretty interesting collaboration between the unrelated Luz Elena Mendoza and Sergio Mendoza. The former is a singer in the Northwest, the latter in a band that is inspired by the mambo music of Mexico in the 50s and 60s. Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin got them together to combine her rich voice with his big sound. It mostly works as an interesting experiment in modern Mexican-American music. I think I would like his band better. The voice is big and rich and loaded but is a bit pastoral and folkie for me. The music is good but sounds like it’s straining to be louder than it is allowed to be in this setting. Certainly a worthy project, maybe not my very favorite thing. At the very least though, I think it is well worth a listen.
Finally, I was recently tagged in one of those Facebook memes that was “12 albums that stuck with you.” I assumed the definition of that was at least 5 years old. I chose the following:
1) Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
2) Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages
3) Waylon Jennings, Dreamin’ My Dreams
4) Wussy, Strawberry
5) Palace, Viva Last Blues
6) Old 97s, Fight Songs
7) Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
8) Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
9) Bob Wills, Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 4
9) Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night
10) Millie Jackson, Caught Up
11) Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
12) Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out
If I went to 24, I guess it might look something like this:
13) Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
14) The Band, The Band
15) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
16) Gram Parsons, Return of the Grievous Angel
17) Bill Frisell, This Land
18) Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
19) Ray Charles, At Newport
20) Terry Allen, Lubbock (On Everything)
21) The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
22) The Who, Who’s Next
23) Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights
24) Velvet Underground, White Light, White Heat
One more Merle Haggard post is necessary to commemorate of the career of one of the greatest musical artists in American history. I wanted to share with you 10 songs I think are just outstanding. My list might be a little different tomorrow and these aren’t his 10 more popular songs per se. Just 10 of my favorites and a bit about why.
10) “Wishing All These Old Things Were New”
Truthfully this probably isn’t my 10th favorite Haggard song but I wanted to represent his later career. But it’s a very good song off of a very solid album with one of the great lyrics ever to start off an album:
Watching while some old friends do a line
Holding back the want to in my own addicted mind
Wishin’ it was still the thing even I could do
Wishin’ all these old things were new”
9) “Big City”
This 1981 hit was probably Merle’s best song of a lost decade. The 80s were rough on a whole lot of musicians of the 60s. This song doesn’t have the leftist politics that lots of people want from musicians to like them. It’s as incoherent as any Haggard song this way–he takes about how he just wants what’s coming to him when he leaves the city and moves to Montana, but he says to keep the retirement and the “so-called social security.” Which is of course what’s coming to him. Whatever. It’s a fine song about someone dying to leave his crappy job and the city and move to the country. A classic theme in country music and in American life.
8) “Swinging Doors”
Can’t do this list without a drinking song.
7) “Sing Me Back Home”
One of the great all-time prison songs.
6) “The Farmer’s Daughter”
Merle gets so much guff for his anti-hippie songs, and fair enough. But sometimes the characters he portrayed in his music had more space for accepting hippies. This lovely song is a good example. It’s also a good reminder that Merle was a pretty fair fiddler.
5) “Today I Started Loving You Again”
One of the great all-time broken heart songs, a staple theme of country music.
Haggard mostly avoided the big string arrangements of the 60s and 70s that came to the fore with Owen Bradley’s production of Patsy Cline and others are reached their apotheosis with Billy Sherrill’s productions of George Jones. I like that stuff fine. I also like that Haggard kept it simple, cutting through the overproduction for straight-forward unpretentious lyrics and arrangements. I think one reason I like “Carolyn” so much is that it is Haggard deciding to change things up and including some big arrangements. This version also benefits from Merle’s red leather jacket and Glen Campbell.
3) “Silver Wings”
The last time I saw Haggard, he dedicated this to the families of soldiers. My understanding is that this has nothing to do with the song as written, but it really gives the song it another meaning. Whether a military family or anyone else, there’s little as sad as watching a loved one fly away (or after 2001, leave them at security.
2) “Mama Tried”
I don’t think I need to explain this one. It’s Haggard’s most widely beloved song, for obvious reasons. Not sure about that set though.
1) “If We Make It Through December”
Simply one of my favorite songs of all time. This version is from 1978.
A few disorganized thoughts on the death of Merle Haggard.
This death is a tremendous blow to the world of American music. One of the finest singers and songwriters of any genre in American history, what to me makes Haggard stand out from the crowd is his directness. There’s very little of the pablum that infects country music in Haggard’s music. Yes, he can engage in nostalgia, but it’s a different sort than the backwards-looking rural romanticization so common in country music, a sensible position by the way for many of those musicians to take given that such a large part of their audience were themselves recent urban migrants. But Haggard’s nostalgia is both sweet and bitter because of the tremendous poverty he grew up in. Of course people respond to poverty in different ways. Many try to escape it. But Haggard (same goes for Loretta Lynn) didn’t. Instead, he tried to give dignity to the Okie working class of California in the 1930s and 1940s. That was ultimately his core nostalgic theme. So you have songs like “California Cottonfields,” “Tulare Dust,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” which is just a tremendously powerful piece of work.
What Merle was of course most famous for is his anti-hippie songs, primarily “Okie from Muskogee” and then his less defensible “Fighting Side of Me.” And then he also became well-known for his occasional liberal stances in his late life. What was the political Haggard? Like most of the rest about him, it was a ball of contradiction. He could go from supporting Obama in 2008 to saying Obama was destroying the Constitution through the ACA to supporting Obama again and there was little reason to bat an eye. This was the same in his music. What Merle Haggard fundamentally believed in was writing hit country songs without selling out to bad music or bad production. That meant he was all over the map. He could from the horrible “Fighting Side of Me” or the utterly execrable “I’m a White Boy” to writing powerful songs about racial injustice like “Go Home” and “Irma Jackson” within a matter of months. The real lesson about Haggard and politics is not to look to musicians for political guidance (see also Neil Young and his Reagan support). Judging Haggard by his bad politics is just as big a mistake as judging him by his good politics–this mass of contradictions is just not the kind of political lodestar you want to be following. He claimed he renounced “Fighting Side of Me” but then played it at pretty much every single show up to the end of his life. Just accept the great songs and reject the bad ones.
And then there is prison. Of course Haggard, even well after his prison days, was a crazy man. He was nearing the point in his life where he was going to be involved in murder, as his friend who he thought about escaping from prison with ended up. He actually saw one of Johnny Cash’s prison shows live. So when he got out, he managed to turn his life around. He always had a complicated relationship with his prison time. He evidently didn’t really like to talk about, but he did like to sing about. And he did that very well. Some of this was self-mythologizing. But while that was a big part of the outlaw country movement in the 70s, he did it in a lot less egotistical way than say, Waylon Jennings who wrote a lot of songs about how rowdy he was and how his wife needed to wait in line for him and the like. Instead, he wrote those prison songs with the same straightforward nature that he did the rest of his music. “Mama Tried” is of course an all-time American song classic, but there are so many others–“Sing Me Back Home,” “Lonesome Fugitive,” and many others.
But in the end, outside of genre or politics or his crazy life, Merle Haggard was just a great writer and performer. I saw him twice, once in Knoxville in 1999, which was great. The other was on the blacktop of a New Mexico casino parking lot on July 4, 2004 (I think). It was crazy hot and the stage had Merle facing into the sun and it wasn’t all that great, but who could blame him for that. The only time I ever sang karaoke was at Farley’s dissertation defense. I figured there was just no way to deny the man at that moment. There was only one song I could sing, arguably one of the finest songs in all of history.
I will one more Haggard post (at least) detailing my 10 favorite songs. Right now though, just keep listening to this great voice of American music.
In Hampton, Virginia, at five o’clock one drizzly, cool January morning, Theresa Lane, Merle’s girlfriend (no one addresses Merle as Mr. Haggard, though his friends often refer to him as Hag), summoned me by phone to Merle’s bus. As I walked across the parking lot of the Coliseum Sheraton a half hour later, the Strangers’ bus was the silent, dark one. Merle’s emitted a dim golden glow and rumbled on high idle. Theresa, a tall, slim, attractive woman in her late twenties, with tousled blond hair and muscular arms and shoulders, met me at the door and escorted me through the living room and down the narrow hallway, past a framed photograph of Hank Williams and another of Dolly Parton, into the kitchen, where Merle sat on the floor, his eyes closed and his bare legs stretched straight out under a small table. Naked except for a plaid flannel shirt and après-ski boots, he greeted me with a slight nod. I took a seat at the table, summoning faith in what one of the Strangers had told me months earlier at a Merle Haggard-Willie Nelson concert in Las Vegas—“Don’t knock on his door if he don’t tell you to. Don’t not knock on his door if he does tell you to”—and Theresa stood behind Merle to knead his shoulders, now and again pulling his head up hard, until his neck was stretched taut.
“Goddam, my head feels like it oughta be lifted right outa my skull,” Merle said. He reached for a pack of unfiltered cigarettes and a lighter on the table, where several packs were scattered among cigarette papers, sheets and scraps of notebook paper, cassette tapes, and empty cassette cases. On the counter were a few dirty dishes, glasses, and some silverware.
Steve Young died last week. The country songwriter of the 1970s produced hits for a lot of people, including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He made the decision not to be the road warrior that might have seen him have a commercial breakthrough but he wrote a lot of good songs for the country music world. He’s best known for his song “Seven Bridges Road,” although I love “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” which Willie Nelson did on his fantastic Phases and Stages album.
There’s a big ol’ new Grateful Dead tribute album coming out. It is curated by The National. Don’t know how good it will be. There’s some interesting performers and some that are less interesting. And I don’t know why you have some acts do multiple songs, but whatever. Anyway, at least Courtney Barnett covering “New Speedway Boogie” is an interesting and pretty good choice.
Reviews of recent albums I’ve checked out.
Mates of State, You’re Going to Make It
In the 2000s, Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel’s couple band made albums that were broadly referred to as “joycore” for their alt-indie songs about relationships and parenting that lacked angst. Rather, this was happy pop music for happy people and even the songs about relationships that could go bad end up going pretty well. For those who liked more irony in their music, this was not really for them, and sure, it can be pretty twee, but I liked 2008’s Re-Arrange Us and 2011’s Mountaintops a great deal. Those albums remain in relatively regular rotation today. But they disappeared after Mountaintops. Finally, last year, they released an EP. But You’re Going to Make It does not really capture much of that old magic. There’s just not a whole lot going on here. The music is still as happy as ever, but the songs don’t really resonate. Maybe this is more or less the end for this band if this is all they could muster after four years. C+
Joanna Newsom, Divers
Joanna Newsom will always be divisive. Some will love her odd voice, others will hate it. Her career has been pretty inconsistent. The Milk-Eyed Mender I thought too cute for its own good. Ys is one of the best albums of the 2000s. Have One on Me had potential if it wasn’t a three-album behemoth. There are good songs there, but it mostly fell flat. Editors are important. Use the discarded songs for record-day throwaways, don’t expand your release to three separate albums unless the songs are solid gold. After five years between albums, she released Divers last year. The reviews were pretty solid. I held back, not sure I was ready after the disappointment of Have One on Me. However, lately, as those songs have come up on shuffle, I have found myself enjoying them more and more. Perhaps the album’s size combined with the difficulty of her voice and the expectations after Ys for me to give up on it too quickly.
I enjoyed Divers thoroughly. While it is going to take a few more listens to figure out the typical knotted lyrics, the music and her voice really washed over me. The vast numbers of instruments used on this album certainly helps differentiate the songs. And I didn’t think there was a weak song in the bunch. I moved back into thinking she’s has a brilliant vision. I may feel differently later. But not now and I don’t think after listening to this album another 15 times this year, which I imagine I will since I will buy it.
Say what you will about Joanna Newsom, she’s truly a unique figure in the history of American music. A
Buddy Miller, Cayamo Sessions at Sea
The country songwriter and singer also co-hosts a show on XM with Jim Lauderdale. They did this cruise with a bunch of fans and musicians. Miller decided to record it. This is the result. It’s perfectly pleasant. No one is going to complain about hearing him do “After the Fire is Gone” with LeeAnn Womack or “Love’s Gonna Live Here” with Kacey Musgraves. Some performances are better than others. You’d think Lucinda Williams singing “Hickory Wind” would be great but it really isn’t. Miller and Shawn Colvin covering “Wild Horses” is nice. In fact, the whole album is nice enough. But I can’t see ever really needing to listen to it again. B
Mothers, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
Mothers is an Athens, Georgia band led by Kristine Leschper. This is a solid debut with some major bummer songs but a pretty solid sound. I don’t love this, but I like it and I will be curious to see where this band goes. B
One of my ten favorite albums of all time is back in print. That is Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages. The great guitar player died soon after making this album, just as it landed him a major label deal. This is a perfect album that moves from swing to free jazz and back. Great band too, with Elvin Jones, Pharaoh Sanders, and Charnett Moffett. This is a great review of the brilliance that is Ask the Ages. If anything 10/10 is too low. What’s interesting about the album is that it is far and away the best album he ever made. While Seize the Rainbow is pretty solid, his early work isn’t very good and when he was coaxed back into recording in the mid-80s, it was something of a mixed bag. The album he did with Nicky Skopelitis really doesn’t work at all, for instance. But Ask the Ages is transcendent. Really makes me wonder what would have come next.
I saw the Drive-By Truckers on Wednesday. It was my 10th DBT show, which is the most of any band in my life. Oddly, not only has it been 10 different venues, but 10 different cities. So I’ve seen them in big halls and small clubs, dives and beautiful old theaters. I’ve seen them with Isbell, on The Dirt Underneath tour after the band almost broke up and when the legendary Spooner Oldham was touring with them to play keyboards, and in all their iterations since. I saw the epic 36-song show at Terminal 5 in New York (an awful, barren space) on New Year’s Eve 2010 that included Patterson Hood’s dad coming out to cover some of the Muscle Shoals soul hits he had played on, playing “The Flying Wallendas” while the Flying Wallendas were performing above them, followed by set break sword swallowing, followed by Cooley covering “Delta Dawn,” followed by walking through Times Square at 3 am on January 1 during the cleanup.
This show was good, but not the best I’ve seen, largely because Patterson Hood’s voice was completely shot due to a throat thing and he was really struggling to sing. Still, he wasn’t actually sick so the music was great and of course Cooley was wonderful and singing more songs than usual. Moreover, they had the organist for the Boston Red Sox sitting in with them on keyboards for the whole show. He was great. Also, they have a new album coming out this fall. Played a few songs off of it, sounded good.
Finally, a few short reviews of some recent albums I’ve heard.
Wussy, Forever Sounds. My favorite band turns up the noise for the new album. I love it, but I don’t love these songs as much as usual. There are some gems–“Dropping Houses,” “She’s Killed Hundreds,” “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” “Donny’s Death Scene.” But at least so far I haven’t really enjoyed the second half of the album much. And there’s not the great lyrics on any song that characterized songs like “Yellow Cotton Dress,” “Motorcycle,” or “Halloween,” to name a couple from the past. Of course, it’s pretty common for Wussy albums to grow on you as you listen to them because they are so designed as albums. So I may enjoy it more going forward. Still really good, but not in love with this. B+
This video makes me wonder if there’s some weird presidential bust collection in a field somewhere I need to go visit.
Richard Thompson, Still. I’ve listened to RT for more than 20 years now, having gotten into his work in college, around the time Mirror Blue came out. I stopped buying his new albums though after Front Parlour Ballads. Still is fine–I don’t think he is capable of a bad album–but it’s not something I can see listening to frequently. His guitar work is still great and the lyrics good enough. For someone working this long, his productivity and consistency are amazing and a late-career slow fade is entirely respectable. However, I found “Guitar Heroes,” where he intimidates the guitar playing of his favorite guitarists of the past, a really annoying song. B-
Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. This was Christgau’s favorite album of last year. I could barely get through it. I respect Laurie Anderson but I’ve never liked any of her albums. The arrangements are great. Her talking about her damn poodle for 75 minutes is however not something I am ever going to listen to again. Yes, I know it’s also about her husband Lou Reed dying, etc. But it’s mostly about the dog. Might be more interesting in the movie form. C
Matthew Shipp, The Conduct of Jazz. This was my favorite Shipp album in a long time, an equal to those great albums he did for Thirsty Ear in the early 2000s like Pastoral Composure and Equilibrium. This is also for Thirsty Ear so maybe it really comes together when he records for that label. With Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, The Conduct of Jazz is just a lot of fun to spend time with, with Shipp in full improvisational glory. This I will buy and listen to frequently A
This can also serve as a Saturday evening open thread on anything music, or really anything unrelated to the damn election.
Since this primary season makes me want to melt my own face in acid, I imagine many of you feel the same way. So here’s a good argument about nothing political at all–stop listening to the music of your teenage years and explore new tunes. Nothing says “I stopped trying to listen to music years ago” than a person saying, “The kids these days just aren’t making good music.” Of course, exploring older music also has value so even going beyond listening to Dylan and Stones records to explore Sir Douglas Quintet albums is a good idea. But this is most important for listening to new music. Which you need to do.
In early 2012, Fusilli wrote about the Gee-Bees in a column for the Journal and started a website called ReNewMusic.net, devoted to introducing out-of-touch listeners to some of the best new music being made today—from Bon Iver to D’Angelo, Frank Ocean to the Arctic Monkeys, Janelle Monae to St. Germain. And the idea led to his new book, “Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music,” which compiles 50 of his columns with short essays on the generational bias that too often passes for deep insight or sturdy critical thinking.
“We’re surrounded by people who, despite a narrow perspective, insist the music of their youth is superior to the sounds of any other period,” he writes. “Most people who prefer old music mean no harm and it’s often a pleasure to listen to them talk about their favorite artists of the distant past. But others are bullies who intend to harangue is into submission, as if their bluster can conceal their ignorance. They ignore what seems to me something that’s self-evident: rock and pop today is as good as it’s ever been.”
This is an important idea, especially in 2016, when pop music seems like a uniquely apt medium for a range of expression. Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, among others, are addressing African-American identity and police brutality in stirring songs like “Alright” and “Formation.” Adele and Taylor Swift are writing eloquently about female desire, while Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves are helping to overturn the gloss-country establishment in Nashville. And if guitar rock is your thing, look to Australia, where acts like Courtney Barnett, Royal Headache and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are producing some of the most exciting indie-rock anthems of the decade.
The idea that these young artists should be considered alongside the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan might be easily dismissed as another form of generational bias if it came from a millennial or even a Gen-Xer. But Fusilli is a Baby Boomer who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and has been writing about music for most of his life. He has a deep knowledge of pop history and even penned an excellent book on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” (as part of the 33 1/3 series), but more crucially he possesses a driving curiosity about the new music. That makes “Catching Up” a galvanizing read even for those listeners who can name every jazz artist on “To Pimp a Butterfly” or every sample on Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo.” But Fusilli says he wrote the book for “people who are the opposite of the Gee-Bees—that is, secure in their status and welcoming of new ideas.”
In that spirit, I’ve really enjoyed the music of John Moreland in recent weeks. This is off his 2015 album, “High on Tulsa Heat,” which I strongly recommend.
And the new Wussy album is coming out soon. The first song, “Dropping Houses” is typically great.
And in the spirit of older music you might not know if you aren’t of that age, allow me to introduce you to Sir Douglas Quintet, led by the single most underrated individual in the history of rock and roll, the late great Doug Sahm, not to mention Augie Meyers on the organ. Evidently Hugh Hefner had his own late-night show where he wore a tux, interviewed people, and danced to rock and rollers like Sir Douglas Quintet. If you look carefully, you can see Michael Caine dancing as well. 1969, what a time.