Friday, April 16, 2021

I Went Out On A Limb


 

I've been writing this novel for at least two years (I've lost track at this point). I've polished it and substituted words, and I frankly have reached the end of my tweaking patience. 


So, tipsy tonight, I finally submitted it to my very first agent. I'm checking my email regularly for that swift rejection. At least I'll get the first one out of the way. My feelings won't be hurt; I've been down this path before.


I'm itching to get back to blogging about music. I haven't even written a tribute to Charley Pride and he deserves one. And I have a lot to say about music. I've just been otherwise engaged. 


Blogging is where I feel most comfortable. No judgment, no dismissal. 


So if you're one of my followers (and not a bot) stay tuned. 


Novel writing is a losing game. But at least it consumed several months of my life.


Sunday, January 24, 2021

My Sister

 


(Carole, back row, third from left)

 

My parents were excellent Catholics. They didn't stop having kids until God told them it was time to stop having kids. Thus my sister Carole was eleven years older than me and her firstborn son was only a year younger than my baby sister. Mom and Carole were raising babies together -- that's how it worked. Mom was a grandma at age 38. 

Carole got married and moved out of the house while I was still a gap-toothed adolescent. She and her new husband rented an apartment in our tiny town, a couple of blocks away from my elementary school. Sometimes I'd chill at their flat after school. My brother-in-law was attending school after work to enrich his job opportunities. I don't recall what he was studying, but I remember seeing his leather-bound books on their apartment shelf and being mightily impressed. Carole and I would listen to AM radio while she scurried to get dinner ready. Carole's place was comfortable and homey.

Being the oldest child, she bestowed upon me my nickname shortly after I arrived home from the hospital. Thenceforth I was Shelly and only used my formal name for school (because it was required). 

When our mom set forth on her short-lived restaurant venture, taking me with her, she left my little brother and sister in Carole's care while our dad worked the fields. Carole had two kids of her own by then, but what were two more?

Carole was full of ideas, not all of them necessarily good, but she approached each one with gusto. She approached life with gusto -- wide-eyed, ready for the next adventure. She was by far the most optimistic person in our family and the most jovial. Nothing seemed to get her down and she was always quick to laugh. I think she got that trait from our dad, who was naturally happy-go-lucky, although he had his demons, too. I marvel that either Carole didn't let things get to her or she was the world's greatest actress. She also wasn't a scold -- if someone in the family did something everyone else frowned upon, she just shrugged it off. Life was too much fun for negativity. 

Dad, Mom, my youngest siblings and I traveled to Fort Worth for a visit and Carole lamented that she missed spending time with the family. We commenced the two-day drive home and pulled into the driveway only to spy a car with Texas plates pull in behind us. Carole and her family had decided to pull up stakes and move, just like that. (Her husband was a notoriously fast driver, so they probably had a little time to pack their belongings.) I'm certain it was her idea and she had made it sound like so much fun, every member of her family thought, heck yea!

That was Carole. Whereas my second oldest sister and I were cautious and my big brother was calculating, Carole could talk all of us into abandoning our inhibitions and darting off on a new quest. And it was fun. I don't think I ever laughed as much in my life as when I was around her.

My sister died today. She was seventy-six. Her four sons were with her. Life wasn't especially easy for her after her divorce. She worked long past the time she should have been home enjoying her grandchildren. I bet she never complained, though, and simply thought of it as another of life's adventures.

Bye, Carole. Please share a laugh with Mom and Dad when you see them.



Sunday, December 6, 2020

About Those Disappearing Music Videos...

 

I rarely go back and re-read my old blog posts. What's the point, really? I was there when they were written. Today, however, I wanted to recall something I'd blogged about, so I started scanning my posts. Since this blog is primarily about music, I include tons of YouTube videos. Well, looky here -- a bunch of the videos I posted no longer exist!

It's impossible for me to re-add videos to hundreds of past posts. I tried for a while, but the task became too unmanageable. So if you come across something I've posted and you think, wow, this person is a complete moron, well....at least with regard to non-existent music videos, they really did exist when I posted them.

So, feel free to hum a tune to replace the bare spots.

Hal Ketchum

The 1990's was a sublime decade in country music. Aside from the sixties, which few people, alas, remember, the late eighties to mid-nineties were the most consequential years in country's history. It took a great talent, or at least a sit-up-and-take-notice track to cut through the deluge of astounding, now-classic singles that hit the radio waves. One could flip on their car radio and invariably hear a good, nay, damn good song. 

While the music was great, for the most part the lyrics weren't exactly poetic (not that poetic lyrics are a prerequisite -- I love music because it's music.) I do, however, admire a songwriter who can actually say something in very few words. It's not easy. A song obviously has limited parameters....plus it has to rhyme! Writing a song is a skill that can be learned, but writing one that isn't a cliche requires natural talent.

I grew up in a small town, where as teenagers our entertainment options were limited. We didn't necessarily care, because we didn't know any better. Yes, Friday nights were spent "dragging Main", as we called it. Main Street was miles long, so we traveled up and back, up and back; met other travelers in the Big Boy parking lot at the edge of town; sometimes hopped into their car (or more likely, their pickup) and traversed the trail a few more times; drank a few Old Milwaukees that the one guy who was twenty-one had earlier picked up at the liquor store; made out, maybe made a date for the following weekend; eventually climbed back into our own car and made a couple more passes down Main before heading home.

So, for a guy who grew up in Greenwich, New York to write a song that captured our lives and our sensibilities was a revelation:

There's an Elvis movie on the marquee sign
We've all seen at least three times
Everybody's broke, Bobby's got a buck
Put a dollar's worth of gas in his pickup truck
We're going ninety miles an hour down a dead-end road
What's the hurry, son... where you gonna go?
We're gonna howl at the moon, shoot out the light
It's a small town Saturday night
It's a small town Saturday night

 

(And yes, we did stop along the way and put a dollar's worth of gas in the car.)

If one was cynical, they might view the song as ridiculing a certain way of life, but I don't think that was Hal's intent. To me, the song is a mini-screenplay; a slice of life, one that fewer and fewer people can now relate to; and apparently Bobby was precociously aware:

Bobby told Lucy, the world ain't round
Drops off sharp at the edge of town
Lucy, you know the world must be flat
'Cause when people leave town, they never come back

 

Hal Ketchum's career spanned the nineties, racking up five top-ten singles (Small Town Saturday Night peaked at number two). Here is another nice track that reached number two on the charts:


Another #2 hit apparently has no official video (record companies don't believe in "over-investing" in artists):



In country's heyday I purchased two or three CD's a week, and I bought the "Past The Point Of Rescue" album. In hindsight I bought a lot of "one-album wonder CD's", and that's not a knock on Hal or on any of the other artists of that time. And Hal had other albums besides this one; it's just that the artist choices throughout the decade were overwhelming, and my criteria was, the album had to at least contain one song I was familiar with. Hal's biggest hits were pretty much bunched onto that first CD.

I will posit, however, that if you write one great song in your life, you have accomplished more than what 99.9 per cent of other so-called songwriters have. 

And you gotta be a poet to do that.


Hal Ketchum passed away on November 23. He was only sixty-seven years old.

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Johnny Bush

 

Country music fans of a certain era know Johnny Bush. How could they not? I've told the story before about being shipped to stay with my older sisters in Fort Worth, Texas when I was thirteen. That's the time I first heard Johnny Bush, on Bill Mack's all-night radio show on WBAP. At first I thought, who's this guy trying to sing like Ray Price? (Ray Price actually had a lower register, but Johnny's phrasing was very similar.) It seems that Johnny had been a member of Price's Cherokee Cowboys, so a bit of absorption was probably natural. However much I mistakenly thought he was a Price wannabe, however, I couldn't ignore the perfection of this track:

 


This was 1968. Johnny had released a couple of earlier singles, but I heard this one first. Later I discovered another Bush recording from that year that has since become a classic (and was covered sublimely by Mark Chesnutt):

What Johnny Bush did so well, aside from writing songs, was to perform them in a flawlessly heart-stabbing, gut-punching classic country style. 

Johnny's hit-making time was short. 1968 to his last real hit in 1973 only comprises five years, but it seems like so much more. Those years, as it happens, coincided with my newfound and total immersion into country music. It was also the time when the music was country -- Merle, Tammy, Connie Smith -- they didn't try to hide it. That was the cache of country music. The only people making fun of the music then were "too cool" dolts who'd never ever listened to it ~ as opposed to today when people who profess to like country music actually have no idea what country music is. 

I was a junior in high school when this track was released and my friend Alice and I loved it. Johnny wrote it, but it was later co-opted and ruined by Willie Nelson. Unlike me, Johnny was no doubt thrilled that Willie played it (and still plays it) at all his shows, but unless you're a fan of jazz-country, Willie's version reeks. Here's how it's supposed to sound:

 


1973 was the last time I heard a new hit from Johnny. Alice and I were taking a post-graduation road trip and anytime this song was queued up on the car radio, we sang along...loudly.



After '73 my life moved on and I rarely thought about Johnny Bush except to spin his singles from time to time. I thought that he, like many artists of his time was simply dropped from his label. The music was changing (and not for the better), so that was that. Only later did I learn that Johnny lost his voice due to spasmodic dysphonia and could no longer sing. Through years of work he eventually regained seventy per cent of his singing voice, but by then the times had passed him by. He still performed regularly in Texas, though, where we was (rightfully) revered.

Johnny Bush died on October 16 at the age of 85 and took a large chunk of my musical past with him. I'll surely miss his voice.
 



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Conformity

 

When I'm writing I've found that my best soundtrack is rock and roll from the fifties. I don't want anything too jarring to take me out of my head, yet I need something in the background. We like to remember the fifties as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard; but frankly the majority of charted hits in the fifties were soothingly bland -- three-girl groups, Bobby Rydell, groups named after shapes -- The Platters, The Diamonds, The Coasters. Maybe it sounded subversive at the time; we all take our rebellion where we find it; but it was in reality conformitive. Music producers didn't want to push the envelope too far and offend straight-laced sensibilities. 

The fifties were before my time. My older sisters lived it -- I lived the sixties. I didn't latch onto fifties music until a couple of decades later, via K-Tel compilation LP's. All my music up 'til then was tied up in my life experiences. I was born in 1955, so my first cognition of music was sometime around 1961. But as someone who gobbled up music, I was keen to learn. No offense, but I think my sisters were focused on the wrong music.They bought singles, as many as their collected pennies allowed, but they kind of missed the gems. They bought things like this:


 

Instead of this:

 

I know they liked this:

 

And you know how I feel about Elvis. But they missed this:

 

 

And this:


I don't condemn anyone for their taste in music. Music is tied up in memories, a conduit for recalling our past. Lord knows I don't claim most of the pop music from the seventies, even though it happened during the prime of my life. And something happened in the sixties that hadn't been dreamed of during the Eisenhower years.There is a clear dividing line between the middle of the century and what came after. That's not to say there wasn't seminal music created during Ike's time; there was. My sisters, though, had only American Bandstand and nervous AM radio as their guide. I was six years old when my sisters were sixteen and seventeen. They collected few physical albums. One I liked, but didn't know why, featured this song:


I now know why. It was country music, which I'd never heard of at age six. I bet my sisters didn't know about country music, either.

Fifties music had its gems. Every decade has its own. 

Nevertheless, as I'm struggling with my novel, listening to the fifties soothes me and informs me. 

And I don't want to simply let it pass by.



 

 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

2020 Country Music Hall Of Fame Inductees -- Part 3

 

Dean Dillon has been derided as "George Strait's songwriter", but that's too silly to even entertain. Had George passed on a song, someone else wouldn't have recorded it? I, too, if I had George Strait's ear, would pitch my songs to him first. Who wouldn't? That doesn't make Dean Dillon any less a stellar songwriter. It does mean that George has superb taste.

Frankly, if Dean Dillon never wrote another song, he could celebrate a life well-lived based on this alone:

 

A great song is judged by the number of people who fall in love with it. A great songwriter is an ethereal being. I've written songs and one, maybe two, dropped from heaven. Okay, one. Songwriting is one part skill and three parts transcendent intervention. Lennon and McCartney were both extraordinary songwriters. In country, Hank Williams was a savant; Merle Haggard a master; Harlan Howard hit the sweet spot; Willie Nelson shredded hearts. Roger Miller possessed an alien genius. Kristofferson spoke words mere beings could not conjure.

Dillon's songs have been recorded by such disparate artists as Hank Williams, Jr., Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill, Toby Keith, Alabama, George Jones, and Pam Tillis, to name a few (and that is a disparate list!) But frankly, the best ones were recorded by George, and again, why not?

This is a well-deserved honor and a long time coming.

Lead on...