Roots Watch: That Folk Roots/Country Connection—Family Style
Ever since commercial country music started up in the 1920s, folks and other people have been arguing about the degree and nature of its regularly alleged and often simply assumed ties to older down home music—the music made by Americans, particularly Southern Americans, on their own porches, in their local saloons, churches, and dances. This issue comes up whenever historians weigh how much country came (and comes) from those places, how much from more calculating pop sources, and it’s echoed whenever country fans wrangle over whether some particular artist, song or sound is genuinely “country.”
Maybe it was predictable that the question of “background” would be revisited when commercial country capital Nashville was selected as the next three-year home base for the long-lived National Folk Festival, but I hadn’t necessarily figured that the succession of often charming, sometimes exciting shows that were unleashed at the first Festival outing, this past Labor Day weekend, would do it so freshly and be so revealing about it.
You may not have heard of this Festival before; it’s not been the most publicized of annual fests, (a factor the stand in Music City may change), but this was the 73rd outing of a sometimes massively-attended event sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. It was started up in St. Louis in 1934 as a livelier, more inclusive answer to the pretty stodgy, vanilla sort of Anglo-preservationist “folk” fest then being staged in North Carolina. The organizers recognized the accuracy and musical fun of seeing to it that styles of music being made and played and exchanged by all sorts of American ethnic and racial groups; that brought artists as diverse as African-American sacred lap steel ace Aubrey Ghent, national treasure Travis-style thumb picker Eddie Pennington, Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach, and young Kurdish seven-string “saz” master Ms. Ozden Oztoprak (Nashville has the largest Kurdish population in the U.S.) to the same stages this year. This fest’s organizers eventually proved more accepting of commercial influences in the music of everyday Americans; there wasn’t that old folklorist insistence on presenting the “pure” and supposedly “isolated,” but the National Folk Festival never turned (as did some of their imitators) into a headliner-centric excuse for presenting star singer-songwriter “folk” acts either.
That turns out to be a very sweet spot for seeing how roots music relates, and keeps relating, to commercial country, and to other contemporary commercial music with roots connections, for that matter. A Sunday afternoon tent show set by the Grand Ole Opry’s Whites and the Staples Singers-like McCrary Sisters (in demand R&B back-up singers with a CD of their own) just tore the place up. What’s more, the set’s title, “Family Tradition: Making Music Across Generations” makes explicit the Festival’s country-roots connection revelation: It’s not that everyone has to be born into a country music-making household or hardcore region to make it; that’s been disproven by “exceptions” time and time again. And it’s not that the commercial music was simply an extension of the older “folk” traditions on records; that the music’s elements were more complicated than that was clear to anybody paying attention at the beginnings of commercial country and that’s certainly so now. It’s that if you come from a family already caught up in the music at your birth, if you’re raised in the speech patterns and church rhythms and nuances and manners and even food flavors that go with them, you have advantages—a leg up—in making ongoing contributions to the music. And that’s as true now as it ever was, the strong music and songs of music makers privy to those advantages made the case again and again—and without hitting audiences over the head with the news.
Time and time again during this festival, in passing comments by the performers, or, in some cases, in their answers to questions about these matters posed by curator/on-stage interviewers from the Country Music Hall of Fame, audiences discovered they were enjoying performances by offspring of earlier performers, some celebrated, as in the cases of Ernest Stoneman’s daughters Patsi and Donna, and early (African-American harmonica player ) Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey’s son DeFord, Junior, with whom they shared a stage.
Some of those family members behind the performers were never stars, as in the case of Kentucky mining region raised singing songwriter Larry Cordle’s banjo and fiddle playing great grandfather, or Darrell Scott’s dad, from the same region, who played in honky tonks and wrote songs, but never “made it’ as his son would. Taught music from early childhood, and hearing family stories of an earlier era, Scott would write “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” one of the most affecting roots-born country ballads of our era, which he performed for the crowd, as well as an unheard song of his father’s, “It’s the Whiskey That Eases the Pain.” Cordle offered hit roots ripened hit for Ricky Skaggs, “Highway 40 Blues,” a new, pointed and often very funny song from the viewpoint of the coal itself, and then his well-known satire of latter day Nashville perfidy, “Murder on Music Row.”
There was also a provocative variation on the “folk background meets Nashville” theme in a Fest set called “Let’s Cut a Hit,” which looked at the byways and work means, “number system” language and even practical jokes of Music Row musical aces as a sort of culture of its own. Country session legends Harold Bradley, Bob Moore, Weldon Myrich, David Briggs, and Jimmy Capps privileged the audience with instrumental versions of such ultimate Nashville standards as “Crazy,” “Once a Day” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” all of which had featured one or more of them on the original records, and, gee, that these players, who have only appeared on literally tens of thousands of sides between them, have varied regional and musical backgrounds hardly mattered to these ears one jot.
By the way: With the 75th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s birthday getting much attention as it came up recently, and some salutes to the short-lived roots rock legend attention along with that, I want to highly recommend a brand new one, Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly by Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub. Burch emerged from the seminal Lower Broad Nashville scene that also brought us BR5-49, Greg Garing, and Kenny Vaughan, among others, and for my money, he’s proven to be among the most consistent and sharpest musical forces to emerge from the whole alt.country scare of the 90s. Whether he’s taking on Western Swing, hardcore honky tonk, rockabilly, British Invasion pop or blues, Burch gets at the core of the music’s sounds and rhythms, pulls at them knowingly, and comes up with something fresh and playful. He does that again with Holly’s unforgettable music, and I think you’re likely to like it.
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