Friday, July 3, 2020

Why I Am A Country Fan


Like all children of the sixties, I lapped up all the music on top forty radio. I was in love with The Beatles and oh so many other pop acts ~ The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, The Dave Clark Five, to name but a few. Had my parents not uprooted me when I was eleven, I may have continued on my merry pop ways, although music was changing by 1966-1967; becoming less fun and more angry. 

As the new kid in a new town and an excruciatingly shy kid to boot, transitioning to my new life was agonizing. I had no friends and I didn't even know who the best friends to cultivate were. I rode the city bus every school day from home to a worn hotel, then hoofed it the remaining three blocks to my turn-of-the-century schoolhouse. Everything in my new town smelled old. We'd moved in the middle of December, so my panorama was dirty snowbanks.and grey gloom.

Back home I was a cool kid. I was a leader; I could be counted on to play a major role in any and every school pageant . I'd had the same school friends since first or second grade. Here I was nobody. I kept my head down and dreaded walking through my sixth grade classroom door, sure everyone was staring at me. I could only remember three or four classmates' names, though it rarely mattered. At recess. I hugged the brick wall until the bell rang. I tried to scheme a way to move back home, but all my plans had kinks. We'd sold our house. Who would I live with? Would my best friend Cathy's mom let me move in? Would my parents allow it? Of course not. I hated my parents for putting me through this. And they were so nonchalant about it all.

I inhabited a teeny-tiny bedroom that I shared with my little brother and sister ~ they cocooned in the bottom bunk while I claimed the top. The narrow torture chamber had recessed shelves behind a walnut door, and I kept my battery-powered turntable on one of them, along with my paltry collection of 45's. When the little kids were out and about, I played records or listened to AM radio while scribbling my homework. Perhaps the worst part of my new existence was the suffocation. On the farm, I'd inhabited a capacious pink bedroom on the second floor. The breeze wafting through the chiffon curtains was exhilarating. My world was vast. Here five people hunkered, piled atop each other in near-windowless rooms.

It may have been January or February when I exchanged a smirk in Miss Haas' classroom with a girl whose name I didn't know. One of the boys had uttered a ridiculous response to a question. That smirk commenced a six-year best friendship. It's funny how friendships happen. I think you just know. Her name was Alice and she turned out to be a kind, down-to-earth person with a wicked sense of humor.

Suddenly my torturous existence transformed into a new-friend lifeline.

Inevitably our talks turned to music. "I like country music", she said. "I'm in a band with my brother and my uncle."

I wracked my brain for country music references. Country wasn't alien to me ~ it was my parents' music of choice and I'd spent most of fourth grade living one closed door away from a country bar with a country jukebox. I knew who Buck Owens and Ray Price were, and Roger Miller. I'd heard a twangy girl named Loretta on the Wurlitzer. I also knew Bobby Bare.

Turns out a true country fan was required to have a much more in-depth acquaintance with hillbilly. I was ready to take the leap. "Snoopy Versus The Red Baron" wasn't cutting it for me anyway. Frankly, some of the artists my new friend introduced me to were too cheesy, even for me. At twelve I could appreciate George Jones' music, but not venerate him. In Alice's defense, she had to rely on her parents' albums, which were from a bygone era ~ Carl Butler and Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Porter Wagoner. I gleaned as much knowledge as i could from those LP's, and Alice and I discovered a new girl singer together ~ Porter's new duet partner; a tiny bee-hived blonde named Dolly Parton.

I went home and tuned my FM dial to the country station. Alas, it only played deep tracks by Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell. In 1967 I hated them both. This was not the country music I was supposed to be learning!

In short order, Alice and I heard some new singers on AM radio ~ Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride...and Merle Haggard. Once I heard Merle, I was a goner. Suddenly everything fit. All the corny tracks I'd sat through, cross-legged in front of Alice's parents' hi-fi made sense. I was no old-time music girl. I was a soon-to-be teen and my music needed to match my surging hormones.

It took no time at all for me to purchase that twenty-five-dollar red acoustic guitar hanging in Dahmer Music's window. I wanted ~ needed ~ to play along with Merle Haggard songs.

Alice came over every Saturday for a few weeks to teach me how to chord. I learned how to change broken strings and how to tune. Eventually I stopped dropping my pick inside the soundhole and having to turn my guitar upside down and shake it out.  I immediately learned about burning fingers. My thirst for guitar-playing knowledge stretched as far as learning the chords I needed in order to strum along with my favorite hits of the day -- primarily A, E, D, G, C, B flat, and the sevenths.I stumbled into some minor chords -- but country songs didn't use minors.

The first country LP's I bought were:



Yes, I knew Waylon Jennings before he was Waylon Jennings.




Once I adopted country music, I embraced it with my whole heart. The truth is, it wasn't just peer, or best friend, pressure. I am able to go along...for a while...if going along assuages someone else's feelings; but eventually I'm going to alight on what I like and stay there.No, there was something about country that felt comfortable; something that was lacking in sixties pop hits. Soul; truth. A weeping steel guitar riff pierced my gut; twin fiddles made me cry with joy. The thumping bass guitar was a pulsing heartbeat. Even in sadness, country had so much joy...the joy of pouring out one's guts.

I met country at an opportune time. The mid-to-late sixties was rife with promise. Merle, Waylon, Tammy Wynette, Lynn Anderson, Faron Young, Connie Smith, David Houston, even Buck Owens and Ray Price. Had country and I been introduced a mere ten years later, I would have laughed disdainfully and quickly abandoned it. As it was, I became a country snob. I knew what was good and what was pap, and I took great offense at the pap. I resented interlopers. Fifties country artists weren't my cup of tea, but I shared their appall when someone like John Denver came along and started winning country awards. This pipsqueak folk singer? I was so adamant in my principles I refused to acknowledge I actually liked "Let Me Be There" by Olivia Newton-John. Sure, there were country elements to the tune, but a pop singer? Sorry.

My all-time favorite moment from the CMA Awards:



Like many things I've obsessed over in my life, in my teens I became rabid. I stayed up late just to tune into clear channel, real country stations like WHO in Des Moines, with overnight DJ Mike Hoyer, who actually, around 2 a.m., played complete new albums. It was a rare night when WSM in Nashville pierced the static, but sometimes I actually had the opportunity to listen to Ralph Emery, who'd have artists like Marty Robbins perform live in the studio. More often I got to listen to Bill Mack on WBAP in Fort Worth, whose preferences were stone country, a revelation for me.The seminal country disc jockeys were Mike Hoyer, Ralph Emery, and Bill Mack ~ when DJ's actually mattered.

Though Alice and I were essentially conjoined twins, I had my own musical preferences and she had hers. We agreed most of the time. Rarely did one of us fall in love with a song when the other didn't like it. True country has a genetic code that those who share it feel in their bones.

I don't think she was ever crazy for Faron Young, but I was. Some voices resonate, and his did with me. I usually cringe when I watch his live performances ~ Faron was a recording artist foremost; his live shtick was too hammy for me. This one is pretty good, though:



For years and years when someone asked me who my favorite country singer was, the answer was Faron Young. I remember traveling with my family somewhere when I was sixteen. We decamped in a motel and I knew that Faron was going to appear on Hee Haw that night.. My ultimate quest was to get that black and white rabbit-eared TV tuned to CBS in time to watch him.

Flipping through my LP's from those years (alas, some of them have been lost), my tastes ran from lots and lots of Connie Smith and Lynn Anderson, practically every album Merle Haggard released, Faron (of course), The Statlers, reams of Porter and Dolly, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Mel Street, David Houston, Tammy Wynette, Conway and Loretta, Mel Tillis, Barbara Mandrell. Buck Owens and Susan Raye, Bobby Bare, Johnny Paycheck. Even one-offs like Kenny Price, LaWanda Lindsey, and Tom T. Hall.

By the time Alice and I graduated from high school, along with the predetermined rock songs that blasted out of her car radio, we sang along with:







I wasn't always wedded to the classic country sound, but that's what stirred my soul. 



Finding it, however, became more difficult for me as country began to change.

It wasn't as if country went to hell just like that as the seventies rolled around. Some classic acts emerged mid-decade:  Ronnie Milsap, Gary Stewart, The Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Eddie Rabbitt,  GENE WATSON. And a girl singer who tipped country on its ass. Her name was Emmylou.












I still purchased mainly singles, and there were some classics scattered here and there: "Rose Colored Glasses" by John Conlee; "Heaven's Just A Sin Away" by The Kendalls; "Party Time" from TG Sheppard; most any Johnny Rodriguez release.









The trouble with the seventies was that so much bad country dominated the airwaves. Producers chased the latest fad and created monsters like Sylvia and Billy "Crash" Craddock. 

Ronnie Milsap and Gary Stewart knew what country was about, but their battle was ultimately lost in the record companies' drive to get "acceptable" artists on The Midnight Special.

It hurt my heart to abandon country, but I was driven to it. I'd lost Alice as a friend sometime in the mid-seventies. We mutually, albeit unspokenly realized our life paths had diverged. We simply stopped pretending. I don't know what her life became, but mine morphed into a a hard-fought adult; and most importantly, a mom. Music never lost its sheen for me, but it assumed a lesser importance. I was supremely poor and could only afford an occasional LP. Had it not been for a hand-me-down console stereo, music would have only streamed from a battery-powered radio or my car. 

Thanks to network television, I still knew what was going on in country and it wasn't pretty. Urban Cowboy wasn't even that good of a movie, much less the fad it spawned. It was soon after that Kenny Rogers appeared and dominated country with his Lionel Ritchie-penned tunes. I did not regret my decision to turn away. 

I've recounted this tale before, but it bears repeating. Visiting my parents on a Friday night, I found that instead of their usual Friday fare of JR Ewing, they'd popped in a VCR tape of some white-hatted cowboy singer. "Who's this?" I asked derisively. Mom answered George somebody. I was less than impressed. Granted, this guy had all the right instruments in his band, but I didn't know any of the songs. What George Whoever did, however, was pique my interest in checking out this "new" country. It didn't happen immediately. On a lazy Saturday I stopped in at Musicland and picked up a couple of cassettes. As I ritually circled my house with a dust rag, I listened.

This was the first tape I bought:



This was the second:



I didn't even know why I'd picked these two. I knew nothing about current country. But I played those tapes over and over.

My conversion was gradual. As I waited outside the elementary school for classes to dismiss, instead of Y93, I took the leap and twirled the dial to the local country station. I knew none of the names of the artists. So I just listened.

There was this one guy with a nasally voice and a kick-ass band ~ I didn't know who he was, but I liked his songs. Some sisters, Forrester, I think the DJ said. And some other family group; Judds maybe? That George guy kept popping up, too. The local station played him a lot.





This new country was like the old country, except the instruments were upfront and the bass thumped louder. And damn, the songs actually said something! I was suddenly hooked. I wasn't giving up my MTV, but I was suddenly home.

I discovered new artists named Randy, Dwight, Steve, Wynonna and Naomi, Clint, Alan, Patty, Rodney, Earl Thomas, Highway 101. My musical existence became a cornucopia of revelations. I chastised myself for giving up so easily. But somehow I knew that had I not surrendered I wouldn't have unearthed this wonder. While I was gorging on Huey Lewis and The News, country had sprouted and bloomed.











And this guy (the one with the nasally voice) stands alone:



As a country fan since the nineteen sixties; as someone who'd simply given up, I was now granted my due. I'd waited the requisite amount of years and my award at last arrived. It was as if I had to give up in order for country to catch a clue. 

And that George guy? I now possess twenty-three albums and a boxed set. Mom and Dad were onto something.

As the eighties rolled into the nineties, the delicacies continued to slam the airwaves. Patty, Vince, Joe Diffie, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin, Marty Stuart, Tracy Lawrence, Diamond Rio, Brooks and Dunn, Travis Tritt, MARK CHESNUTT, Restless Heart. 















Before even the halfway mark, however, country began to slide downhill. The songwriting became less crisp. Established stars were calling it in. I hung on until 1999; then I stopped listening forever, never to return. This time I meant it. 

I don't know what "country" is like now, but from the bits I've heard, it's no longer country. That's okay. I had forty years, with some stops in between. I don't need new music; I've got more old music than I could listen to for the rest of my life. 


(And that's after filtering out the ones I will never again listen to.)

It's a funny thing about music: I've held onto my albums from the sixties, even though I'll probably never play them again, but when I pick one up, I'm holding my history in my hands. Seeing my maiden name scribbled on the back reminds me of the person I was then and the emotions I experienced lo those eons ago. Music is so impersonal now. Even my CD's don't evince the raw emotion that an LP does. 

It's impossible to sum up my life with country. So much of it is tied to where I was, who I was, where I was going.

A glimpse of my musical heart (draw your own conclusions) can be found here:

The two songs I remember hearing for the very first time on the radio and swooning over:






It's been a great run. I'm not sorry for any of it.



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