Friday, June 21, 2019

My Musical Requirements

Sometimes I think artists are under the misconception that fans are here to serve them. No ~ you entertain me.

I have the option to not listen to you. It's easy ~ click on a YouTube video; click off. I've done it so often, my mouse finger is arthritic.

There are universal elements to a good song. I understand the temptation to serve one's ego ~ I'm a songwriter, too. And all that is a-okay, if one is recording in their basement. I have no illusions that anyone will like my own personal treasures; but then again, I'm not sending them out into the world. The only people who profess to like obscure meditations are either geeks or posers.

I'm not sure if professional songwriters fall in love with each of their songs or if they're manning an assembly line, but there is a glut of sub-par songs floating through the ether. Give me a lined tablet numbered one through one hundred, and I could sum up the entire essence of popular music. I'm really not a curmudgeon; I've simply lived long enough to have heard it all.

I've tried (really tried) to get on board with the new and semi-new artists written about on the go-to country music site Saving Country Music, but what's missing with these artists is that certain zing to the heart. Intellectually, I can appreciate some of the new efforts, but who listens to music intellectually? I might as well crack out a math book. And no matter how many people tell me I should like John Q. Country, sorry ~ I make up my own mind.

I miss the days when I caught half a new song on the radio and couldn't wait 'til the DJ played it again. Maybe music has lost its magic. Or it just isn't that good anymore.

Back to my musical requirements:

Heart ~ Don't pretend that you believe what you're singing. Really believe it. Ask Randy Travis. Ask George Strait.

Play it like you mean it ~ Damn, people! Are you afraid of musical instruments? They're really not scary; they're an integral part of this thing called "music". Don't give me a strummy acoustic guitar ~ kick it in the ass. See:  Dwight Yoakam.

Be universal ~ I don't want to hear about you; I want to hear about me. Give me something that relates to my life.  See:  Merle Haggard.

Do something different ~I can write verse-chorus, verse-chorus in my sleep. It'll take more than that to grab my attention. Surprise me. Surprise might be the most important element in distinguishing a banal song from a stupendous one. See: The Honeycombs, the soaring falsetto of Roy Orbison; the intro to "California Girls".

Combine these four elements and I'll fall in love.


Play it like you mean it:

Be universal:

Something different:


Do that and I'll join your street team. Don't do that and just leave me the hell alone. I've heard it all, remember.

And now I commence numerating my one hundred essential songs....

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Sixty-Four Years of Music ~ Why I Left Country

In the seventies, I was a singles buyer. Country albums, for the most part, didn't try too hard. In the late sixties Merle Haggard had done an album called, "Let Me Tell You About A Song", which is the first "themed" LP I can remember. That was an anomaly, however. Country albums generally consisted of one or two hits and nine filler songs. It was a cheat designed to get music lovers to plunk down four dollars and ninety-nine cents. I could never understand why artists, who had to go through the trouble of recording an album, didn't at least look for good songs. Thus, singles were king.

We didn't yet have a full-fledged music store in my town, so Woolworth's record department was my deliverance.Singles only cost a dollar, so even during my poor times, I could at least pick up one.

Gradually, however, riffling my fingers through the accordion of country singles in Woolworth's bins left me angry and frustrated. I bought a lot of crappy singles during that time, just to go home with something. Like anything a person tires of, it didn't happen overnight. Sometimes one doesn't even realize they're being played. Country label execs at some point decided that we hayseeds would buy anything, and they probably didn't like country music anyway, so it was a win-win for them.

The top artists in the late seventies were Crystal Gayle, Kenny Rogers, Dave and Sugar, Billy Crash Craddock, Johnny Lee, Sylvia, Charley Pride (who'd somehow lost his mojo), and Barbara Mandrell. Sure, there were some wonderful outliers ~ The Oak Ridge Boys, Eddie Rabbitt, Rosanne Cash, Gene Watson, The Kendalls ~ but the charts were hogged by mediocre artists' "country" tracks. I don't have anything against Kenny Rogers, per se, but except for The Gambler, he essentially bastardized country music. As for the others....

 Here's a sampling:

The sensation that Crystal Gayle was posturing never escaped my brain. Her singing seemed so stylized, with the way she pronounced her words. I think, had it not been for her freakishly long hair, she would have simply been a flash in the pan, regardless of who her sister was.

As I understand it, Sylvia is actually a good songwriter; and one must do what one needs to do to advance in the music biz, but her singles were like deadly earworms.

Ahh, Dave and be generous, this is actually country music, but something about that guy set my teeth on edge. He was too seventies-disco-cool, with his hair and chains. It also bothered me that they replaced the good girl singer with somebody else and acted like no one would notice, simply because she didn't quite fit the image Dave wanted to evoke (seventies-disco-cool).

I generally like Barbara Mandrell, but this song is putrid. Barbara also had a network TV show where she featured her sisters (Louise and the other one, who couldn't sing), and it was tedious. Every week Barb would do her shtick of playing the one song she knew on the steel guitar and then they'd do some goofy skits and sing a song together (the non-musical sister's mic was no doubt turned off). Every freakin' week was the same.

So, yes, I finally reached my breaking point. If the country music industry didn't respect me, ta-ta! I turned to MTV and hallelujah ~ they were playing actual music! I love, loved MTV. I loved it for many years, and I missed the resurgence of actual country music (thank you, Randy Travis). Those who hung in there through the lean times didn't miss it. I did. My patience had been snapped. And I had to play catch-up, once I discovered that the walls had been battened with clubs and fiddles and steel guitars.

The seventies music honchos should be ashamed of the tatters they ripped country music into. As well as those artists who blithely tottered along.

Even thinking about it makes me shudder.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Forever And Ever, Amen ~ A Book Review

If you know me, you know that I rarely purchase books ~ I borrow my Kindle books from the local library. My reasons are twofold:  Firstly, I can't afford to buy books that mostly turn out to be duds, and second, I'm trying to downsize my life; not upsize. It's the rare book that I will outright buy. This was one of them. I doubt my library even carries this moment....I was right. Libraries are supercilious enterprises that feature books like the autobiography of someone like Robbie Robertson, who no one cares about; or the darling of liberals, Bruce Springsteen, but nothing that smelly Trump voters might like. In other words, no country music. Never mind that the average rating for Randy Travis's life story is four and a half stars.

As soon as I discovered that Randy's memoir was soon to be released, I added it to my Amazon wish list. It seemed that Randy Travis had been an organic part of my musical life forever. I'd mourned his alcohol-fueled mishaps and commiserated with my friend Barb, who wasn't even a country music fan, crossing my fingers that he'd turn it around. After all, I wasn't ready to let Randy go.

When I first came back to country music in the mid-eighties, I had a lot of catching up to do. I'd abandoned it, finally, when it became intolerable, with its Crystal Gayles and Sylvias...and its Kenny Rogers's. Turns out Randy faced those exact obstacles when trying to land a recording contract. The powers-that-be in Nashville had a good thing going (they thought), so why mess that up? Nobody likes stone country music anymore. Well, I did. The country music label heads drove me to MTV.

When I rediscovered country music, I found these new guys ~ George and Dwight....and a guy named Randy. Truthfully my mom and dad tried their best to convince me that country music was worth my while, but I'd by then erected a brick wall and refused to even listen. In fact, when they slipped their VHS tape in of a George Strait concert, I sat in their living room and mercilessly critiqued every stupid, corny song. 

I didn't know that Randy Travis had begun the whole neo-traditionalist country movement. The years tend to run together. I only recall a cornucopia of sounds that set my heart afire. As it turns out, if it wasn't for Randy, there wouldn't be a George or an Alan, or a Clint, or even a Brooks and Dunn. It seems all these guys were waiting for someone to break through the ice dam of cosmopolitan "country" and give them permission, and that someone was Randy.

I knew about the marriage to his manager, Lib, and how completely strange that coupling was. I'd heard the gay rumors and didn't know what to make of them. After all, his wife was an old lady. I didn't know how she'd used him to advance herself, while Randy was naively living the only existence he'd known since he was seventeen. Randy gives credit to her for her tenaciousness in securing him a deal, but long after he'd become a superstar, she latched onto someone she thought she could turn into another Randy (she couldn't). And she was essentially an evil woman.

I don't know why I didn't know about Randy's songwriting. I'd long been a liner notes purveyor, but somehow I'd missed that. For example, I didn't know he'd written this:

I sure didn't know he and Alan Jackson wrote this (I didn't even know they were friends):

Reading this memoir gave me a new level of appreciation for Randy Travis.

I actually saw him in concert, albeit reluctantly. I was still in my snooty phase regarding country music when Mom and Dad talked me into attending a Randy Travis concert. I approached the whole scene with my arms crossed, fully prepared to ridicule the goofy corn pone display. Despite my best haughty intentions, I found this Travis guy to be thoroughly professional and engaging. I didn't know any of the songs, but they all sounded quite fine, especially this one:

(In case you care, this song lands among my Top Twenty country songs of all time.)

What struck me most about this book is Randy's deep faith. I have my own relationship with God, which is mine alone and doesn't fit the traditional concept of Southern Baptist conviction. But I love to read about someone who is so confident in their bond. I envy that and never dismiss it.

The only quibble I have about this memoir is that it should have stated upfront that this wasn't written in Randy's voice. Since his devastating stroke, he really doesn't have a voice. It was evident from the start that someone else wrote his story. That's okay, but a little deceptive. Before I opened the book, I wondered how he could manage to "write" his life story when he could neither write nor articulate his memories. But that's okay ~ one gets used to someone else's voice the further they delve into the narrative. (As a writer, I have a certain bias about "voice".)

If you are a country music fan, read this. You'll have to buy it, unless you wait a year or so for your local library to deign to include it. If you became enraptured by country in the nineteen eighties, read this book. It'll explain a lot.

Because I'm a picky person, I give this autobiography:


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