Roots Watch: Tending Country Music’s Legacies
One lesser-mentioned Ray Price life and career accomplishment to celebrate and remember now is that he came to be able to say “yes.” There are fans, to this day, who will go to great lengths to tell you how much they honor shuffle king Ray’s driving 1950s hits, the likes of “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” and “Heartaches By the Number” and “I’ll Be There,” and only that part of what he gave us; the crooning career that followed gets dismissed. There are other rabid fans, of course, who’ll insist that it’s “The Night Life,” “For the Good Times” and “The Other Woman” that really matter, ballads that had the substance, and there was a time when Ray might have suggested something along those lines himself, in defense of his own change of direction. But he was blessed to mature towards self-acceptance, to seeing that all that he had contributed was all part of who he was, and so in his enthralling latter day shows, with that never-conquered voice of his still well at work, he’d bring them all in, just letting Ray be Ray. (My personal favorite show I saw him do was behind Stubb’s BBQ in Austin some years ago; he’d brought along nine violin players, on the grounds that Bob Wills had never had that many.) Well that’s all over now except the music. Time, they say, is a monster:
Of course, it takes a special and tenacious performer to fashion a career with distinct successful chapters in the first place to ever achieve the luxury of deciding where the chapters fit in their own legacy, and how inclusively they want to present themselves. Ricky Skaggs is another one of those, and when I heard that the first night of his two-show stand as Artist-in-Residence at the Hall of Fame a few weeks back would be themed “Country Boy at Heart,” apparently devoted to his now rarely-heard and important 1980s stand in mainstream country, “New Traditionalist” style, I jumped at the chance to attend that one. I’d spent much time, well-spent time, at his bluegrass-oriented shows in the decades since, but this was unusual. Brad Paisley, one of his musical guests and accompanists for the evening, expressed his own excitement in seeing Skaggs pick up an electric guitar in public again and take on the likes of “Heartbroke” and “Highway 40 Blues.” Ricky did in fact tear into those on guitar, egged on by some excellent competition from Paisley and Peter Frampton, no less, but I couldn’t help but feel some constriction and holding back on the vocals, as if he were going through the motions with music he saw as somehow lesser among what he’s offered—or possibly was simply very nervous to be back in repressed territory.
The ‘80s country hits proved to be just a passing phase of the show, a sub-chapter, as Skaggs moved on to some early old time acoustic county with the Whites, daughter Molly, some gloomier Ralph Stanley with Emmylou Harris, and to some songs from his Contemporary Christian album, Mosaic, which was, in fact, some of the most uncharacteristically contemporary sounding music he’s offered in recent years, and not very country at all. The next night, it would be back to bluegrass. The evening may have been billed as “Country Boy at Heart,” but it seems fair to say that the boy’s heart, as far as his own contribution to the field goes, anyhow, seemed about half in it. I’ve heard enough country stars who’ve since followed him on the mainstream charts express admiration for what he’d done in the field, and spoken of inspiration drawn from it, that it would be nice to think that perhaps, over time, he might be more visibly, gut-level accepting of it himself—Ray Price style.
One of the more quotable and quickly quoted remarks in the country legacy business of recent weeks came from the often observant Garth Brooks (one of those who regularly praises Skaggs’ country records) as he was inducting Kenny Rogers into the Hall of Fame: “In this business, anyone who comes before you is a god; anyone who comes after you is a punk.” Today’s country doesn’t always act as if it believes that first half, with more legends and legacies referred to (or plain ignored) than saluted in appreciating ways you can believe. There have already been way more than enough studs-of-the-month claiming deep personal connections with the music of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard or George Jones while showing no signs of it whatsoever—which made the historic, elaborate salute to Jones at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena last month, with very possibly the largest audience for that sort of memorial show ever, all the more meaningful.
The assignment of Possum songs to the wide variety of performers in the lineup proved to be masterful—Lee Ann Womack with “Once You’ve Had the Best,” Patty Loveless with “Blue Must Be the Color,” Sam & Dave’s Sam Moore (a surprise to some) with “Blues Man,” Travis Tritt with “The Door,” Vince Gill with “Bartender’s Blues.” These performances and more were actually moving, no small feat in an arena, and if there’s any possibility more people will be able to see or hear the highlights at some point, it would be entirely fitting for George Jones’ memory.
Robert Hilburn’s book Johnny Cash: A Life strikes me as less fresh than I’d expected it to be (details of personal liaisons aside), given his much-mentioned access to the sources, and, rather predictably, Hilburn consistently values Cash’s art to the exact degree that it least resembles country music. He actually calls the rock ‘n’ roll market, at one point, “more culturally important” than country-. That’s not just blatantly rockist, it’s missing something central, because Cash’s personal lurching between unruly invincibility and guilt-ridden paralysis is so very country a story, a life teeter-tottering between Saturday night and Sunday morning—which is no rock narrative.
What’s praiseworthy is that, as a real reporter, Hilburn doesn’t skip whole chunks of Cash’s multi-chaptered life to build an icon, to knock one down, or for fan convenience. He relates the whole messy career arc, the parts where with supervision from Sam Phillips or Bob Johnston or Rick Rubin as producers a truly lasting musical legacy was created, but also that often skipped-through era from the early seventies to the early nineties when not a whole lot of vital new music was coming from Johnny Cash. The book pulls no punches about the man, who was (particularly, but not exclusively when stoned) capable of letting down or mistreating many of those closest to him or acting like a lummox—but also of spontaneous generosity, kindness, intelligence and creativity.
Legacies are best tended to whole as we can handle.
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