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. From 1968 to his last real hit in 1973 only comprises five years, but it seems like so much more. Those years, as it happens, coincide with my newfound and total immersion in 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 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 records. 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 of 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 earth-shattering 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...


 


Friday, August 14, 2020

2020 Country Music Hall Of Fame Inductees - Part 2

 

I have few quibbles about Hank Williams, Jr. being inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, other than there are better and more successful artists who could have claimed that spot.

I am not a Hank Jr. fan, but then I'm not a fan of southern rock. I never "got" the Allman Brothers or any jam band, southern or not. Musical taste is so personal and inexplicable. Hank has rabid, rabid fans who have been praying for his induction for decades, so good for him and for them.

There was a time, prior to his transformation, when he was still singing country music, that I rather liked him. He has never had a strong singing voice, more of a shout, but he recorded some very decent country tracks. Once he abandoned traditional country music, he did score three or four number one hits, which are the ones most non-country fans know: All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin' Over Tonight (or the Monday Night Football theme), Born To Boogie, possibly All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down). 

He did record a track I liked:

Don't get me wrong; I don't hate every Hank Jr. recording:

For those who are curious, Hank was an entirely different performer prior to his mountain climbing accident. Maybe that's why he always refers to himself in third person.

In his acceptance speech, Hank said, “Bocephus has been eyeing this one for awhile." It's like that Seinfeld episode in which Jimmy keeps calling himself Jimmy and all the characters think he's talking about a different guy. Elaine even agrees to go on a date with "Jimmy". I don't care for the affectation; maybe it's a way for Hank to keep himself at arms-length from his fans.

Maybe I'm wrong about Hank's success. My country music site of choice states he's had: 70 millions records sold, 5 total wins for Entertainer of the Year from the CMA and ACM Awards, 6 platinum records and 20 gold ones, 13 #1 albums, and 10 #1 singles. That's not what Wikipedia shows, but again I'm not going to quibble. 

I've attended many, many country concerts in my life. I've only walked out on one. It was the seventies and very few fans were aware that Hank, Jr. was now a "new" artist. None of his southern rock ditties were blasting out of the radio speakers yet. It was a shock -- the vast majority of the audience came to see the Hank we knew, and instead we were presented with a motley collection of Skynryd wanna-be's. Many of us left. In my defense, it was kind of false advertising. But I got used to the new Hank after a while. I may have even purchased the "Born To Boogie" single; can't remember.

So, congrats to Bocephus. I've got my fingers crossed for Gene Watson for future honors, but I'm not holding my breath. I'll settle for Tanya Tucker, though.



Thursday, August 13, 2020

2020 Country Music Hall Of Fame Inductees

 

In a curious lack of enthusiasm, The Country Music Hall of Fame today announced its 2020 inductees via a press release. The HOF might think that with the pandemic consuming everyone's thoughts, no one would care. Quite the opposite. Good news is coveted now more than ever. 

Regardless, I am here to celebrate the newcomers. The HOF has three categories of inductees: veteran era, modern era, and non-performing. One can peruse my past posts to learn how very wrong I was to predict that The Judds would be inducted this year. I am happy to report that in the modern category -- ta da! -- Marty Stuart takes the honors.

I was first introduced to Marty Stuart via CMT. I was fascinated by Hillbilly Rock -- his laconic pointy-booted performance in the video seemed to convey "this is a dumb idea, but I'll play along."

But honestly, I liked the pointy-boot thing.

Marty may not have been the world's greatest country singer, but he had "something". In the eighties I followed along happily when he teamed up with Travis Tritt:

Marty's albums were so-so. I bought the first three or four, but found them a mixed bag. It seemed Marty had little focus. As it turned out, he wasn't doing what he wanted. This was proven out by the release of his masterpiece "The Pilgrim" in 1999. I'd kind of forgotten about Marty -- he went three years without releasing an album, and I don't know that I even noticed he wasn't being played on the radio. Concept albums can be hit or miss, and they've been rare in country. Merle Haggard's "Let Me Tell You About A Song", released in 1972, was more of an autobiographical journey than one cohesive construct. "Wanted: The Outlaws" was not a concept album, contrary to the fable. It was cobbled together by producer Jerry Bradley from disparate tracks by Jennings, Nelson, and Tompall Glaser; throwing Jessi Colter in for good measure.

"The Pilgrim" was a true concept; an actual story recounted in song. Marty called on friends like Cash, Jones, Emmylou, and Ralph Stanley to lend their voices, but truly the best tracks are Marty's. "Hobo's Prayer", "Sometimes The Pleasure's Worth The Pain", "Red Red Wine And Cheatin' Songs", among others are standouts. (My personal favorite is the short mandolin reprise of "The Greatest Love Of All Time". Just beautiful.)

 

Naturally, the album flopped. No radio singles! the suits cried. I truly would have been unaware of The Pilgrim had my husband, who is not a country fan, not brought it to my attention. He was trying to find any country music he could actually like, and he liked Marty. It was in late '99 when we saw Marty in concert for the first time in a small theater venue. I was still reminiscing about his eighties singles, but the songs from The Pilgrim were growing on me. 1999 was when Marty Stuart found his true calling. His next album release was "Country Music", one of my all-time favorite records. Again, none of the songs charted, but there was a mostly silent fan base who gobbled up everything Marty released.

 

The prevailing theory is that Stuart was inducted into the HOF due to his preservation of country music history, as if he's just a memorabilia collector. (He also featured legendary artists on his series, The Marty Stuart Show, although I never found a station that carried it. Thank goodness for YouTube.) Ken Burns' sometimes misguided country music documentary was significantly enhanced by Marty's contributions.

Yes, Marty is preserving the history, and thank God, but he deserves his due as a great songwriter and a superlative musician. Speaking of superlative, our second Marty concert was again in a small venue (the only way to see an artist) and by then he had formed his Fabulous Superlatives. I am not proficient enough to find the correct adjective to describe this band. Superlative fits nicely.

Frankly, Marty could also have qualified in the veterans category based on this:

In searching YouTube videos, I stumbled across this tribute to Marty Robbins. Please bear with the long intro; it'll be worth it:

Needless to say, I have tons of respect for Marty Stuart and I am thrilled that he is a 2020 Hall Of Fame inductee.

Stay tuned for posts dedicated to the remaining inductees.



Tuesday, August 4, 2020

We Pause For This Commercial Break




I'm anxious to get back to blogging about music, but I am currently immersed in the next April Tompkins novel. The good news is, I've picked up where I left off many many months ago. The bad news is, I've only written a little over 23,000 words. I was worried that this manuscript was too long!

Clearly I have work ahead of me.

Don't despair -- I'll need a break before long and I will be back with more music.


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Bill Mack





Around the time I finished eighth grade in May of 1969, life at home spiraled into chaos. For two years I'd dealt with my dad's blackout drunks and my parents' fighting over it, to the point of fingernail slashes and pummeling fists. I was a wreck; but loathe to let it show (a prime characteristic of a child of alcoholism). I have pushed many of those days from my mind -- all the days tended to melt into one anyway; but my pre-high school summer was not one of fun and frolic.

Mom's doctor prescribed tranquilizer, Miltowns, to help her cope; thus, she slept a lot and wasn't especially coherent when she was out of bed. My two older sisters lived with their families in Fort Worth and through second-hand feedback, became alarmed about the situation. Thus, my sister Rosie and her husband flew up to assess. Somehow, I don't know if I ever learned "how", it was determined that my seven-year-old sister and I would return with them to Fort Worth to "stay a while". Why my eight-year-old brother wasn't included, I cannot explain. Of course, I was ignorant of the entire plan until it was sprung on me, so I wasn't privy to those conversations.

The four of us took the train from Bismarck to Fort Worth, with lots of little adventures along the way; some odd; but all of them fun for a newly-minted teenager who'd never ridden a train in her life. My other sister Carole had four boys and a husband, so we bunked with Rosie and her husband in their apartment and slept on a fold-out couch in their living room. I had no inkling how long this experiment would last; all I knew was that I needed to get back in time for the start of school in the fall. In the meantime, I had fun...especially without that ninety-pound weight of dread crushing my chest.

The two couples loved the night, maybe because it allowed them to escape the oppressive Texas heat. Thus the gaggle of us attended a lot of drive-in movies and otherwise stayed up late and played board games; my sisters drinking Dr. Pepper and their husbands chugging Dr. Pepper plus...something. In the background always was the radio, tuned to the hottest country station in the south, WBAP.

That's when I first heard the voice of Bill Mack. I'm not sure if it was circumstances; being lonely for home, yet afraid to go there, or my tiny mixed-up emotions, but Bill Mack's voice was a comfort to me. He just talked. Disc jockeys today, if any remain, love to fake it. Big booming radio voices; super-jazzed all the time over virtually nothing, even partly cloudy skies! Bill liked to have a conversation, albeit one way, with his listeners. He also liked to spin good country music. Bill didn't play much Glen Campbell; he did play Faron Young and Johnny Bush. Night after night, above the laughter and ribbing, we all listened to Bill Mack talk to us.

Summer's end closed in and sure enough, my little sister and I were sent home. Tears commenced. We flew this time, Mom or Dad having sent a check to cover our flight. Miraculously, everything at home was different! No, actually nothing was different. Life went on; I started my new life as a high schooler. My little brother and sister skipped on to their next grades. That may have been around the time that Dad entered rehab for his second shot at it, and I think Mom kicked her pill habit. I never believed any changes would last for long, and I was right.

On nights when I didn't have to kick back early, however, I tuned my portable radio to try to capture either WHO or WBAP, and I lay awake long past midnight just listening. On an occasional lucky night, through the static, I got to hear Bill Mack talk to me.

***

I would be derelict in my duties as an unknown blogger if I didn't talk a bit about Bill Mack the songwriter. I honestly had no idea that this giant radio voice could also write songs until I bought a Connie Smith album and perused the liner notes. In parenthesis beneath the song title, Clinging To A Saving Hand, I read "Bill Mack". The Bill Mack? What the hell?


In 1968, Cal Smith recorded and reached number thirty-five on the charts with "Drinkin' Champagne". And here you thought it was an original George Strait track (silly!) Of course we don't get to "see" Cal performing the song:


Nor do we get to see George sing it:


We do, however, get to watch Dean Martin's version. Not many country songs lend themselves so readily to easy listening (I guess you'd call it). This one does. I'll take the country stylings, even though I like Dino a bunch. Drinkin' Champagne is apparently just a versatile as Yesterday, only a better song.



No, I didn't forget. LeAnn Rimes had a nice little career going before she abandoned it, and it was all thanks to Bill Mack. By 1996 country music had long begun its subtle shift toward pap. Oh, there were stone country hits certainly, "Blue Clear Sky", anything Alan Jackson recorded; but too came the nauseating drivel of Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, Faith Hill. When "Blue" came pouring out of the radio, out of nowhere, I wasn't sure what decade I was in. This was indisputably a sixties country song. In fact, Bill wrote the song in 1958, and no, he didn't write it for Patsy Cline, but that's a nice story.


Rest in peace, Bill Mack. Thanks for the conversations.















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