Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Billboard Country Music ads, ctd.

More fun with the traditions and tropes of 1960s country music, via Billboard.

Johnny Bond's wrestling old demons, his sympathetically-portrayed wife looking on unkindly:

 Hank's down at the pawn shop again:

While Buck Owens and Sheb Wooley are looking sharp:

Little Jimmy Dickens is prideful:

While Norma Jean's singing about the blue-collar gals:

And Carl Smith's going under:

Meanwhile, from 1971, Betty Jo Bangs—not "Bongs," though the misprint is hilarious—might've been hopeful, but "Daddy Was A Preacher, Mama Was a Go Go Girl" was destined to be a cult hit, and one of my all-time favorites:

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Where Have You Gone, Nurse Goodbody?

We're tryin'.
The 1990s were not kind to Hee Haw. A 1992 WRCB (Chattanooga, Tennessee) news report on the show's radical redesign is a fascinating time-capsule of Clinton-era political correctness, futile trend chasing, country-pop crossover anxieties, baffled old-timers, laughably blunt sexism/agism, and Beverly Hills 90210 hair-and-costume ethos. In the face of rapidly declining ratings, the show jettisoned the venerable if corny farm set and rural milieu and replaced it with a contemporary, neon-lit, "urban" decor, introducing new, younger cast members, as well.

Original Hee Haw performer Gordie Tapp—70 at the time of this report—comments on the ushering out of aging female cast members: "They're now 45 and 48, and ladies that age are beginning to show their age, and it's very difficult for women." He adds, "I don't know what it is about television, it seems to enhance men, but it's deathly on women. Some of our gals had reached that stage." Accurate, sure, Tapp's observations are culturally tone-deaf in 21st Century terms, all the more telling for Tapp's willingness to speak the truth as he sees it.

Poor Sam Lovullo, longtime Hee Haw producer. He looks the picture of dubious confidence as he speaks; he doesn't really believe the change is gonna work, but what can you do? Watch him at the end: "Our replacements are...fresh. They're...good." Pause. "And certainly they're ideal for what we need in our new show."

Hard swallow.

The overhaul didn't take. The Hee Haw Show was cancelled within a year.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hank Thompson's At The Bar. Last Call.

But those rough and rowdy ways are tough to give up. The new records on the juebox are singing old songs.

From 1969's Smoky The Bar.

Friday, February 20, 2015

#SpringTraining #NoWaiting

Observers often comment on the nature of time in baseball: there's no game clock; a contest is theoretically infinite; a half-inning may last one minute or thirty; plate appearances are endless games-within-the-game. Time is collapsing in on baseball in many ways, it seems to me, as the clock is being rendered obsolete (or at least a nuisance) in much of contemporary culture. Take Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers are arriving as I write—the frisson of delight that brings me renewed easily—and soon full squads will assemble, split up, stretch in the sun, take infield and batting practice, and slowly resume playing games, suspended since October. When I was a kid, this March assemblage felt virtually mythic with a capital "M," as if out of some imagined master narrative—I knew that teams were gathering somewhere in the South, Southwest, and the West, but the only proof I had was the infrequent grainy black-and-white photographs in the Washington Post or Star. Baseball didn't really begin until Opening Day, when the bunting and sunshine and the bright white uniforms (of the Orioles, my home-team-by-default) heralded the return of the game and, soon but never soon enough, summer. Baseball felt bound by the calendar in very real and irrevocable ways. The season schedule was only printed on paper, and not always easy to find. March was black and white. April was green. The boundary between the two was thick. (For some terrific photos of those old March days, look here.)

In 2015, Spring Training is a 24/7 event, duly previewed, speculated about, followed and remarked upon by baseball websites, official and otherwise, and on blogs, Twitter, and Instagram. This is nothing new, really, but each winter, as Spring Training continues its unsentimental move from the reserves of my fading memory to today's bright blanket media coverage, I can't help but feel loss. This may be the predictable and precious misgivings of someone growing older, or it may be something more. At the risk of sounding pious, I'm not sure that we wouldn't benefit from a dialing back of the megawatt coverage of the exhibition season: I loved coming across the odd box score from a meaningless Grapefruit (hilarious!) League game in the middle of March as snow was thawing outside and birds were building nests in the ash trees in my backyard; the wait for Opening Day, complicated as it was by other more pressing desires of my twelve-year-old self, was a long, delicious wait. That suspension in time has been virtually banished: within a couple weeks, and then within seconds, I'll find online dozens of photos of ballplayers arriving to multi-million dollar camps, emerging from their expensive cars, buffed or doughy, blinking in the sunlight—not to mention streaming games and live stats. When I cared to, which wasn't all that often, I had to picture all of that when I was a kid, an exercise in imagination that both elongated and hastened the wait for Opening Day and Spring in the D.C. suburbs. With that wait having vanished, soothed by more multi-media coverage than anyone really needs, a certain imaginative muscle has gone limp, or threatens to, anyway.

Well, I can always imagine #October.
Toronto Blue Jays at their inaugural Spring Training in Dunedin, Florida, 1977. Just as I would've imagined. (Photo via Torontoist.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lydia Fakundiny on the Art of the Essay

A triptych from The Art Of The Essay (1991):

Say you are wandering—without a map, because no satisfactory one comes to hand—in what you believe to be a neighborhood. Wandering about, you come to know it and locate yourself in it only as you keep on traversing it. Here is a fire station, a corner drugstore, a spot of green space, a row of turreted Victorian homes, a canal. As you pass and repass any one of these landmarks, you see where you are in relation to all the others; you map the place out as a neighborhood. Note: it is your own movement that brings into being the map that tells you what kind terrain you are in. Your orientation is of your own making. You know where you are by having gone there.
         So it is with coming to understand the essay as a genre, a way of writing prose…; so it is, too, with any solitary effort to work through some particular essay, whether your own or someone else’s. Essays discover themselves in the writing. (I am not the first to remark that even when you try, in any concentrated fashion, to talk about the essay, you will more than likely find yourself composing one; essay, it seems, insist on being thought about only in essays.)

Essay writing becomes a means for training one’s capacity to be in two places at once: both doing and watching. You attend to your worldly business, its deadlines and disorders, while absorbed in the peculiarly human work of speculating—observing, reflecting, seeing how it is and could be. The essay claims no authority but that of life lived under such scrutiny, meaning, in the long run, self-scrutiny.

The essay is “personal” because it is in my every movement on paper that “I” come into being and, thereby, exist for my reader. I can’t, as I said before, describe, let alone prescribe, where we’re going; your own eyes will tell you. The reader, too, must get the habit of responsiveness. A reader of essays learns to listen for “the first person…speaking,” to hear the “I” pushing to become “we”—pushing toward something like a mutuality of personhood, a conversation between friends, equals. Reading an essay is not a feat of information—gathering; it is not like running down to the corner store for a quart of milk. It is following the motions and paces of another mind, alert and open to whatever they reveal. Reading essays and writing them have this in common: either way you must “know how to take a walk.” The art of it is one of the great pleasures a person can cultivate.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hank Thompson's At The Bar

In the second half of the 1960s, country singer Hank Thompson recorded a series of drinking/bar albums—among them A Six-Pack To Go, On Tap, In The Can, Or In The Bottle, and Smoky The Bar—great honky tonk, Western swing, and country boogie collections that sing of the temptations and tragedies of alcohol, and yet are couched in upbeat arrangements and smiling melodies. As critic Thom Jurek puts it in Allmusic, "These songs are sad, dark, and fermented in heartbreak and tragedy, yet...darkness never sounded so bright and as a result so pathological." Yep.

Here are three from 1968's On Tap, In The Can, Or In The Bottle: "I could drink to the times when I was happy / But here's a toast to my misery." That old story. More comin', so stay tuned.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“There is no such thing...

...as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others." William Faulkner, who also contributed the name of this blog.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Fleshtones @ 9:30 Club, 1983/84

A loud Super Rock cheers to photographer Jimmy Cohrssen who's unearthed these terrific photos he snapped of The Fleshtones' Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng, co-founding member Marek Pakulski, and the late great Gordon Spaeth, hanging out downstairs, and then playing onstage, at 9:30 Club in Washington D.C..

I was quite likely at this show; it could have been the first time I saw the band. The year's 1983 or '84: Washington's "old downtown" was still old, and the rat-infested, crack-harmed neighborhood around the 9:30 Club was still rough and tough. President Reagan was at home in bed a few blocks away. Have you heard the American Sound?
Peter Zaremba
Keith Streng
Streng's Mustang
Streng and Zaremba, downstairs
Gordon Spaeth
Marek Pakulski

Pakulski in Recovery Mode (Or: If That Couch Could Talk)


Monday, February 2, 2015

There's A Game On

Nothing cast the differences between baseball and football in starker relief than the spectacle that was last night's Super Bowl Halftime Show. Katy Perry delivered—she's a fun, appealing performer who harnessed herself onto a crane that held her aloft over thousands as sparks flew around her, whose songs convey terrific sentiments for young girls. The always-fun, always-funky Missy Eliot was cool, and Lenny Kravitz was competent. But the cultural requirement for over-the-top spectacle, for a loud, absurd, mega-watt diversion from the game—a parallel universe to the game—is anathema to baseball. Even when baseball was the so-called America's Pastime, when television ratings were, well, super, and the game had more cachet among the water-cooler set, the game itself resisted such spectacle, save the odd Charley Finley or Bill Veeck lo-fi promotional splurges. The Halftime Show is, of course, an event in itself, and nothing underlines football's limitations as a sport more than that. I can't imagine a World Series game bearing such enormous cultural expectations to deliver  corresponding entertainment, a show-within-a-show that promotes celebrities and an industry only tangentially related to the game itself. Poor Fox TV: they'd love it. Halftime is obviously a necessary break for winded players and an often-baffled coach and his assistants, but somewhere along the line that surcease evolved into a million-dollar requirement that television viewers be entertained in a way that assured them what they're watching is an Event. Baseball doesn't work that way; its quiet(er) ebb-and-flow and narrative progression would be bruised by such distractions. Baseball doesn't need someone to fly over the park, reminding us that what we really came for isn't the game but a movie trailer promoting X's new album. Baseball park's are too loud, literally and figuratively, as is.

I'll take only a tense and satisfyingly-resolved match-up between a hot slugger and a kid just up from AAA, an anxious conference on the mound in the eighth inning among the infielders, alert to the changes in the situation with the guy now on second, a refined pitcher's duel, a loud bases-clearing triple in the sixth that changes everything. I don't need a half-hour, real-time promotional kit. I know, I know, how boring.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Memory Pushing Against Song: Charlie Louvin's Satan Is Real

The Louvin Brothers' close harmony and songs about sin and redemption are legendary, and incalculably influential on modern and contemporary country music and bluegrass. Charlie Louvin's candid and direct 2012 autobiography Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers offers poignant illustrations not only of older brother Ira's awful, destructive alcoholism and violent streaks but of the vast gap between song and deed, between the ideal and reality. Charlie's lucid, clear-eyed memories of and reflections on his brother's illness are contrasted by many of the songs the God-fearing brothers performed. Apparently for Ira, their music's moral landscapes existed only in melody and words; he found it impossible, or he was unwilling, to translate the songs' philosophy to everyday living. That old, old story.

In the opening chapter, "My Brother's Keeper," Charlies remembers, "My older brother Ira and I were finishing a stretch of shows, the last in Georgia, and we decided to stop by Mama and Papa’s place on Sand Mountain for a quick visit. Of course, we’d barely got on the road before Ira reached under his seat and pulled out a bottle of whiskey, and he drank the whole damn thing on the drive. When I pulled up to the house, I stepped out on my side, and Ira just kind of poured himself out on his."
Mama was out in the front yard, and you could tell how excited she was to see us. She came running up to try to hug Ira, but he put his arm out to hold her off. He was wobbling on his feet, barely able to stand upright.

She knew what was going on. Mamas know everything. “Aw, honey,” she said, “Why do you have to do this to yourself?” She wouldn’t even take Communion in a church unless they had grape juice instead of wine. She didn’t use alcohol and she didn’t understand anybody who did.

She should have known better than to say that, though. Nothing pissed Ira off like when somebody tried to put a little guilt on him. “Aw, leave me alone,” he said. “I ain’t hurting nobody.”

“You’re hurting yourself,” she said. “That’s who you’re hurting.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t remember asking you,” he said, and tried to light a cigarette. He was so drunk he couldn’t even get his lighter to make a flame. “Goddamn it,” he said.

“That whiskey don’t do you no good,” she said. “It don’t do nobody no good.”

Finally, he got his lighter to work, and he poked his mouth at the fire to light the cigarette, but he missed.

“Your father’s in Knoxville,“ she continued. “I sure am glad he’s not here right now to see you like this.”

Ira threw the still unlit cigarette on the ground. “Will you shut up, bitch?”

I can guarantee you the fucking fight was on then. I beat the shit out of him right there in the front yard. He was lucky it was just words, too. If he’d have touched her, I’d still be in prison. Shit, if Papa was there, he might have killed him anyway, but I just kicked his ass all over the place.Then I stuffed him in the car, and we drove away.

“I know you ain’t asleep,” I said to him once we got on the highway. He was curled up on his side of the car, holding his busted face. “I’m only gonna tell you this once. If you talk to her like that again, I’ll beat the shit out of you again. I’ll do it every time. You can lump it or try to change it, but that’s the way it is.”

“Oh, hell, I didn’t mean nothing by it,” he slurred. “That was just that old whiskey talking.”

“That ain’t no excuse,” I said. “Nobody forced you to drink that stuff. And you’d better not ever do it again.”

Then I stopped talking and just drove, fuming.
The family who prays, indeed.

In "Hank Williams," a devastating take on the titular honky-tonk legend's downfall, Charlie reflects, as he does elsewhere in the book, on the possible origins of his brother's tragic alcoholism. Was it to settle scores with his old man? With his mother? With his brother and singing partner? Or was the battle more epic than family:
I always got the feeling that some of those songs came from Ira understanding that he should have been a preacher, that maybe he’d made the wrong choice himself. From an early age, he was a regular prodigy when it came to scripture. He could recite chapter and verse of almost anything in the bible, too. He knew it all. And when he testified, the spirit of the Lord came upon him. Even when he was a kid, the whole church fell silent to hear him. There wasn’t a person on Sand Mountain who didn’t think he was gonna be a preacher when he grew up. Mama was very proud of him, especially since her father was a preacher. I don’t think there’s anything in the world that she wouldn’t have given for Ira to be like his grandfather.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Birth of Rock and Roll: Photos, Essay, and a Q&A

Next month Dust-to-Digital will publish The Birth of Rock and Roll: Photographs from the Collection of Jim LInderman, a book for which I've written an essay and in which I conduct an interview with Linderman. These found photos are the real deal: never-before-seen shots of mostly nameless men and women and children explicitly and implicitly dramatizing the birth of rock and roll.

From my essay:
There’s little historical documentation. A scrawled caption might name a family in a photograph, a venue for dancing, or the spiritual calling of a subject, but the common thread among these disparate photos is music’s ineffable power to inspire and unite the anonymous: as dancing groups, guffawing gangs, shaggy rural orchestras, kids entranced by a strumming grown-up, or urgent, flirtatious pairs on a make-do dance floor. (Of course there’s the occasional solo star, the center of amused or nervous attention as he cuts loose.) These photos narrate 20th century’s noisy pop history, from impoverished acoustic blues to middle-class square dancing, country fiddling and rural spirituals to urban R&B and twisting. There are cheap organs, and cheaper guitars, patriotic warbling and beery frat rock, denim overalls and sharp suits, long, solemn dresses and hip, fringed minis, the wide gulf between posed promotional photographs and impulsive artless dancing scored by song. 
The spontaneous nature of the vast majority of the images in The Birth of Rock and Roll adds to the exhilaration in the moments, inspiring some of the most unlikely to get up, testify, shout, have fun. We’re often in the wake of music: bottles are open, races are blending, legs are splayed, there’s smiling all around. Mostly, I like the surprised looks on so many of the faces. Some can’t keep joy off of their faces in the posed moments, clutching a guitar and winking at the photographer or a friend behind him; many others are startled into movement, aided by those in the frame and those outside, all, it seems, eager to get up and move to music that’s strummed, broadcast, or simply playing in their heads. In The Birth of Rock and Roll Jim Linderman has curated a secret, raucous chronicle of obscure America.
You can pre-order here.
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