Roots Watch: Summertime Country–Remembering, Recreating, Responding
Country music, the whole popular roots music arena, in fact, has demanded give-and-take self-negotiations about what to hold onto, what to let go, how to find a balance between them and how to present the result, from its beginnings to this day. This summer seems to me to be proving a heady time for shows, books and recordings that, in varied ways, deal with those questions once again—explicitly.
Last Thursday night, July 24th, there was a memorable double bill in the annual Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series, which started up with a set by Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, as McReynolds marked his recent 85th birthday and 50th year as a Grand Ole Opry cast member. Throughout his Jim & Jesse bluegrass duo days with his late brother and beyond, mandolin master Jesse has never stopped looking for and finding exciting new musical turns to take. His Ryman set included everything from Pachabel’s soothing canon to Rafael Hernandez’s fiery “El Cumbanchero,” (popularized in North America by Desi Arnaz), and the aging Grateful Dead’s resigned, sometimes elegiac “Black Muddy River.” The enduring talent and flair for variety were winning, but what struck me as most powerful, now, was this: the dynamic underpinnings of the music he made, varied as it could be, were always unmistakably from traditional bluegrass. The man knows exactly who he is, what he can best bring to the show—and exactly how his first generation grasser legacy can be creatively and confidently applied. If more music makers felt the freedom that Jesse shows, built on his firm sense of his own identity and his music’s, there’d be a lot less nattering in the field about who’d ventured their way away from the bluegrass reservation and who had not.
And then Jerry Douglas and his “Earls of Leicester” (that’s pronounced “Lester,” y’know) took the stage in their Foggy Mountain Boys suits to introduce audiences to their take on what needs to be better recalled about the musical legacy of Flatt & Scruggs.
The stellar group lineup, which has a CD coming out on Rounder on September 16, includes Shawn Camp doing his best Lesterin’ salute as emcee and lead vocalist, Charlie Cushman showing no visible signs of being threatened by taking on Earl’s banjo parts, Douglas emulating Josh Graves, who’d inspired him to take up the dobro in the first place, Tim O’Brien on vocals and mandolin, Barry Bales on bass and, notably, Foggy Mountain Boy fiddler Paul Warren’s son Johnny Warren on fiddle. The key choice Jerry and gang have made was to have this evocation be not particularly of the epoch-making Scruggs banjo solos, which have so often been highlighted before, but the musical contributions of the members of that classic band. Live, Charlie did offer up the “Randy Lynn Rag” instrumental (not included on the CD advance I’ve heard), but the emphasis was on the rich variety of songs Lester sang and in which everyone played key instrumental roles at some point. This is a gutsy, unexpected and instructive way to recall that it was always Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys—though one result is a lot of mid-tempo songs, for all the variety in the Boys’ playlist. Johnny Warren had never before played the Ryman, and was never so spotlighted in a chance to show his own impassioned fiddling and salute to his own dad, so there was more than an educational opportunity involved that night for him—and he was on fire.
Fiery always, Jean Shepard, an Opry cast member a decade longer even than Jesse McReynolds, ranks as an all-time favorite fun interview for me, and you can share a lot of what that experience was like by getting yourself a copy of her new, long-brewing memoir Down Through the Years. There’s not a lot of self-analysis of her songs or musical techniques or role in country history by Jean in there, and I think I would have been almost disappointed if there had been. Instead, there’s the chance to spend time with the forever spunky voice, commentary on experiences and storytelling of Jean Shepard, a woman who pulls no punches, likes to talk, and is very good at it. Mainly, she tells you about who in country music circles she’s loved and appreciated and why. She also sets some emotional records straight—for instance, about those who were seemingly disappointed that she wasn’t an endlessly grieving professional widow after her husband Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the same plane crash that took Patsy Cline, and the relative lack of recognition her very successful marriage of nearly 50 years to former Osborne Brother sideman Benny Birchfield has gotten. She describes the challenges of achieving a star career at all beginning in years when even the smartest country label heads thought there was no possibility of genuinely solo stardom for a woman, and she was a key pioneer who proved that incorrect. And she reminds us—though she’s so associated with Nashville by now that it’s often forgotten—that she was an impoverished Okie migrant who reached success out in Bakersfield in the first place.
The full measure of that Bakersfield scene is still ongoing at the Country Hall of Fame and Museum for the rest of this year, but one aspect that was not particularly highlighted was the degree to which the honky tonk acts there didn’t just veer towards electric rockabilly sounds, but sometimes dove in outright. That rock and near-rock is the stuff of the two new single disc collections from Bear Family, The Other Side of Bakersfield: 1950s & ‘60s Boppers and Rockers from “Nashville West,” Volumes 1 and 2. There are some bandwagon jumpers doing obvious knock off of existing rockabilly hits, and a few performers who sound as much out of water and slightly desperate doing this material as, say, Webb Pierce was in “Nashville East.” Hearing Merle Haggard and Buck Owens’ rockabilly, or Tommy Duncan singing “Daddyo Loves Mommyo,” such talented obscurities as country Johnny Taylor and Bob Ehret (“Stop the Clock”), driving takes from Herb Henson, Dallas Frazier, Johnny Bond, and Fuzzy Owen, and the hot guitars that pop up all over these cuts add up to a real kick. Scott Bomar’s notes well fill in the details. There are plenty of bar bands and fans who love the overlapping, not quite differentiated rockabilly-Western bop-hard honky tonk space to this day and these discs, especially the second volume, I’d say, are certainly for you—and others.
When people talk casually about such outspoken Jean Shepard records as “The Root of All Evil is a Man” and “Did I Turn Down a Better Deal?” and her others that looked unblinkingly at the life details of working class women like herself, you can get the impression that these were breakouts after years of compliant “girl singer” songs that heralded accepting of a pliant and smiling fate, from the happiest girls in the post-War USA. That doesn’t stand up to examination; the truth was, as Kitty Wells once complained to me, nobody had been writing songs specifically for women to sing, of any point of view, in the early post-War years, one thing her “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” hit changed; it made a market. I mention this now since, in a period where female performers outside of groups have once again been almost entirely absent form the country singles charts, we now have the much talked about competing records and videos of the spunky Maggie & Tae’s answer to bro country “Girl in a Country Song” and more status quo cheerleading other-directed “Girl in Your Truck Song” from Maggie Rose. You can take your pick on the sentiments. (I prefer the Shepard-like spunky duo’s.) But I’ve heard some online rating these from the standpoint not of their sentiments, which nobody must, but from the standpoint that they’d like them better if they just didn’t sound like contemporary country records. We’ve had remarkable songwriting from women’s points of view coming from Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, and (heads up) I think a lot of people will be knocked out by Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class when it becomes available this Fall, too. Mainstream country adoption of those records, however brilliant, has been haphazard at best (unless you’re named Miranda or Taylor), reluctant at worst. But the fact that the Maggie & Tae and Maggie Rose releases are both getting attention and airplay, that there is this musical debate, is the most noteworthy thing about both of them. Like Jean Shepard records, they arrive breaking through silence, at a point where all those “boys” they’re talking about, and to, haven’t heard many female voices saying anything at all.
And by the way: I want to enthusiastically recommend Michael Jarrett’s revealing, finely constructed new book Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings, which walks us back through country history from the point of view of the record producers—in their own voices and of those who worked with them. A working academic today, Michael for years interviewed producers for reports in the Tower Records magazine Pulse. This history exists because he cared about this subject then, when few did, asked the right questions of the right people, so now he’s able to piece together comments from different interviews chronologically and thematically, so the music makers tell us much about their work, their thinking behind the hits, and the results. Journalists slowly get to know some things through this sort of talk-by-talk knowledge accrual—and in this book, the reader can see how that works, too, and fell like you’ve been there.
- luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
- Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
- Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …
- Paul W Dennis: The Hight article is interesting, although I don't know that I would describe it as fantastic, but then I know …
- Dana M: I'm actually excited to hear a new Reba album. As for the Alan Jackson tour, I hope he announces Canadian …
- nm: Agreed. A good job by three very smart women.
- Deremy Jylan: The Hight piece is tremendous reading.
- Juli Thanki: Much like the music of Aldean and FGL, Michelob Ultra is favored by college kids and too much exposure will …
- Tom: ...michelob ultra seems to be a brew from hell.
- luckyoldsun: Maybe he was just changing out of his hunting clothes. At least he didn't do the full Randy...um Monty.