Roots Watch: Roots, Moves, and Scenes That Sustain
It’s a pleasure and, I’m sure, it will be a challenge in the best possible way, to bring this expanded version of whatever perspective my “Scanning the Countryside” column managed to bring to The9513.com here to Engine 145. The expansion will be twofold: “Roots Watch” will show up twice a month, not just once, allowing me to get to more topics, and sometimes, to comment more quickly on musical news. Also, I’m taking Editor Thanki’s broad definition of what this blog’s all about seriously; reporting from home in Nashville, I won’t be talking about contemporary country music any less, but I will be discussing the broad expanse of American roots music more.
As for roots, Juli and I discovered some time ago that we share some; we’d grown up and gone to school in a number of the same places—in rural, small town and also urban Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., though I was wandering through them a generation earlier. Somehow we both wound up with permanent Phillies caps and a love for the continuing saga and sounds of country music and American roots music in general—Americana, blues, bluegrass, roots rock, R&B, singer-songwriter, folk, and so on. Migrating, along with a number of other former 9513 writers, to this new pub home she’s fostered was an easy call.
It strikes me that the story of relocation of like minds and sensibilities is as relevant to what we really mean by “roots” in a country with a population so often on the move as the more often stressed (and romanticized) sagas of people who happen or manage to stay put. Sure; the shared life experiences, tastes, and rhythms that give roots music its flavor are connected to place—but “place,” as online life makes so clear, has as much or more to do with the interaction between people over time, as landscape. What makes a music “scene” in the short run makes for “roots,” given enough time. (Unless you figure “roots” are whatever you listened to in your junior year of high school!)
Four new books that I can strongly recommend offer striking, and differing examples of the interaction of music scenes and place, hitting the road and staying put:
Ms. Jones tracks the story of extraordinary group of R&B and rock-oriented talents—Reggie Young, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Chips Moman, Donnie Fritts and Tommy Cogbill among them—who grew up or moved to Memphis, interacted, and founded and worked at the storied American Studios, where key recordings by everyone from Wilson Pickett to Elvis Presley and Ronnie Milsap got made. Many of these same players would relocate to Nashville when the Memphis opportunities faded, and change the sounds of country music. This one’s the story of how that all happened.
Starday became as potent an independent record label as country’s ever seen, fostering the careers of the likes of George Jones and Roger Miller, offering an energetic, supportive home for fiddle and steel, bluegrass, rockabilly and trucker songs as most of country turned towards Nashville Sound pop. A key thrust of the story, detailed with flavor and verve by scholar and rockabilly artist Gibson, with commentary from the late label co-founder Don Pierce, is how these independents, willing to offer an alternative to the sounds of the larger Nashville labels, did not steer clear in some far-away town, as indy labels generally had, but moved smack into Music City from the West Coast to do it—and thereby changed things.
Austin music has been, of course, another story, with laid back local flavor that can seem inevitable by now, but Stimeling relates, concisely, how the “outlaw” Austin alternative and cosmic cowboy image was constructed, promoted and sometimes hyped by local businesses, radio, and hippie-era artists. Both the musical advantages of being a special place and the sometime “never need to leave home again ” provincialism of some artists from the “live music capital” are brought home to the reader.
This one’s going to be a revelation for many—a fresh, highly researched, highly engaging look at the circuit of generally under-recognized clubs and theater circuit where raucous, rocking R&B was born, with portraits of the brash operators who ran them on shoestrings, and the music that rose there in the hands of Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Little Richard, James Brown and so many others. Lauterbach offers lively proof that new roots and musical connections can take hold across the countryside and between cities, as well as within them. These African-American vaudeville circuits will remind you, in many ways, of fledging Net connections extending roots music to new places now.
By the way: The primal I-IV-V chord name of this site reminds me also, as a music history geek, of the old “Engine 143” ballad associated with the Carter Family. That was the very song A.P. Carter was performing when Sara Doughtery, soon to be Mrs. Carter, first set eyes on him. And it was the very last song Johnny Cash ever recorded. That train’s had a nice long run—and I wish this one the same.
- luckyoldsun: Paul, Good info. It's pretty disgraceful that Billboard editors can't even get musical history remotely right regarding even their own publication. The …
- Juli Thanki: Yep, I'll be there. Looking forward to it!
- Leeann: Wow! The Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited album is so good!
- Jack Williams: I was also there on Saturday, Juli. I really liked Angeleena Presley's set, too. Marty and the boys …
- Jack Williams: I heard the guy who made the documentary talks funny. That's great news. I'll definitely buy a copy …
- Dave D.: Jim Lauderdale's The Other Sessions is my favorite; just a great country records, IMO.
- Paul W Dernnis: It seems that whoever wrote that Billboard article had some bum information. As of 1993, 13 country artists had 50 …
- Leeann: My favorite Jim Lauderdale albums are his collaborations with Ralph Stanley.
- Jeremy Dylan: Correcting my typo, that should be http://jimlauderdalemovie.com
- Jeremy Dylan: @SCOOTER: Depending on where your tastes lie, I'd say I'm A Song (the new record), Pretty Close to the Truth …