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In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Monday, September 26, 2005

Slow Train to Dawn

I'm making a country mix today. First one I've made in a while.
We start with the great Will Oldham (you might know him as the boy preacher from the movie "Matewan") doing the song "I was Drunk in the Pulpit" from the Palace Bros. album 'There Is No One What Will Take Care of You'. Then the great poets of the Midwest, Freakwater, and that Nick Cave song I've spoken of before, and the great Neko Case, singing songs about her hometown, which is so damn cute, considering it's Tacoma. Like singing a love song to Cleveland, I tell you.
And examples of all the times in pop music history where it realizes its debt to country: Danny and Dusty doing "Baby, We All Gotta Go Down", which is from that weird moment in the early '80's where the L.A. punk bands started doing country, and it got called 'cowpunk'. And earlier, the Willie Nelson himself doing hippie country from The Outlaws' album. The song, "Me & Paul".
Matter of fact, every ten years or so, rock music acknowledges the debt: in the early '90's, it was called, or Americana. There's even one from pretty much Now: Mt. Eerie Doing "Uh-oh! It's Mourning Time Again", in which Phil Elvrum goes all around the Northwest encouraging hipsters to sing. This has to do with one of the things I'm writing.
The book, Slow Train to Dawn, is another one of my experiments in fictional history (as opposed to historical fiction). It follows a bluegrass player from the '30's through the '70's, and watches the influence of radio, the commercialization of country, the rise of rock and roll, the growth of an industry around same, and what it did to the old time musicians.
The other half of the story is narrarated by a guy much like me: my age, and who likes all kinds of music, dislikes very little of it...And sees a pattern in all of it. From the early slave boast songs like "Stagger Lee" to the ghetto hip hop of this day; an unbroken chain. He can see what we've gained, and what we've lost. He also is one of the few amongst his peers who cares what happened before he was born, a conceit of the author, a born history geek.
It's not really a novel so much as it's a meditation on the comforts of music: why we like what we like, and what it does to us. How the soundtrack makes the moments. An excerpt:
"Then there was the time, at Bean Blossom festival, I think, early '70's. Lester Flatt, minus Earl Scruggs, was playing a show (a fourteen-year-old Marty Stuart played mandolin, by the way), and Bill Monroe showed up.
"Now, this was big. Lester and Bill hadn't even talked for twenty years. After Lester left Bill's act, Bill took it as a personal insult. At least that's the way I understood it. Twenty years.
"So for whatever reason, The Bill Himself walked up there in his usual grey suit with country gentleman hat, as if it wasn't 1973 or whatever in America, as if all these things hadn't happened.
"Y'know? No Elvis, no Beatles, not even no Jefferson Airplane. No-"Cause when I put a spike into my vein, it makes me feel like I'm a man," or whatever. Footnote.
"He walks up just in time to do 'Two Dollar Bill', or 'Long Journey Home', whatever you wanna call that song. It's all the same song anyway. Roughly speaking the same chords- hell, same order of solos, but the words...Well, they make the song, but at the same time, they're all the same, too. Make you feel at home.
"Look, the important part is, both Bill and Lester were standing up there, playing their ever loving hearts out, Lester with that eternal smile he always had on, and right at the crescendo part, when they're just sliding into the last chorus, Monroe he just stops.
"Pros like they are, the rest of the band just keeps on playing. But I saw, and about twenty per cent of the crowd did, too, that Bill Monroe had his hand out.
"The Bill Monroe who Lester had just introduced as, and I quote, 'The Daddy of bluegrass music'. Lester looked at it a moment, and then he put out his hand too, and shook.
"That same twenty per cent who saw the hand in the first place then did this barely audible 'awww...' when they did that. So quiet, such a country gesture. A single handshake that said bullshit to twenty years of not talking. We're both old men now, and famous, and it doesn't really matter, does it? Congratulations.
"It brought fuckin' tears to my eyes. Can't explain it. I don't cry easy. I know I wasn't the only one, judging by that 'awww...', a goodly number of people had seen that strange, quiet moment in history. Made me feel good. Like things really matter."

And country is full of moments like that. So's rock n' roll. I figure, why not write a little love story about it?
Politics, and all other aspects of human life intrude:
"We had some well-meaning rivalries with a few other outfits. The Nashua Racketeers and us went up against each other coupla times in various battles of the bands, and of course there was the Christ Mountain Ramblers.
"The Christ Mountain Ramblers hailed from an area in rural Kentucky where some local developer planned to carve a mountain into an enormous head of Jesus Christ. To this end, his tourist attraction would need a publicity-producing house band. Before the project was even completed, they were helling all over the south, playing old time music and talking up the Lord's tourist attraction.
"The whole thing went to shit, though. The local engineers and stone cutters stepped back at the end of the line to gaze upon a sight that didn't resemble the head of Jesus so much as it did a giant, gorgon-headed demon seated on a throne.
"So-back to the drawing board it went, and this time it looked like a glaring little man. Again they tried, this time producing what looked a hell of a lot like a rotten peach. Eventually they gave up and sold it to a local strip-mining concern.
"As for why they were our rivals: they came from the other side of bluegrass. You know, as much as folks in the south like their music and infuse it into everything they do, there' s also this whole stigma there that goes along with being a musician. Just being one makes you kind of suspect. All your music playing is suggestive of late nights, drinking and sin. So most've your bluegrass musicians go out of their way to throw in a couple hymns. But that's unavoidable: most of these songs-when they're not about murder-are hymns.
"However, there's the kind of bluegrass player that does nothing but spiritual numbers. That's fine, I guess. But for some reason I see that as pissin' in the well.
"In our songs, we often celebrated the outlaw life, and said it's kinda nice to drink, dance, fight and screw. If the spirituals were included at all, it was the almost-metaphysical numbers like "The Great Speckle Bird" or "In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain".
"They saw us as heathens, we saw them as assholes. That particular rivalry was not good natured, as with the Nashua Racketeers; they meant it. We, in turn, wondered what they were so defensive about.
"But after the Lord's Theme Park venture went tits up, they kept at it, a little more bitter. We were playing gigs across town from one another, sometime early '50's, in French Lick, Indiana. After playing their set, they showed up to watch ours.
I ran into their picker n' shouter coming out of the bathroom. "Nash," I said, and nodded.
"Whaddya think?"
"Pretty fast playin'. Must needs when the devil drives, huh Bob?"
"Y'know, you really oughta shut up with that."
"How d'ya figger, sinner?"
"I figger if fun was really a sin, God wouldn't let li'l babies be born. I also figger that if yer feelin' bad about not bein' able to keep up with this, maybe you should go sell Fuller Brush, or something."
We stood there with our hands in our pockets. Really mad at each other but not showing it.
"You got a problem with my Lord, Toledo?" Nash asked me.
"Naw, The Management don't bother me at all. It's just you bein' such a damn bluenose that chaps my hide so much. I guess that means that I do, matter of fact, have a problem with your lord."
"I spread His word through song. Whose word you spreadin'?"
"The word of Music, Nash."
"What you drivin' at?" This was him getting mad now.
"I mean, I'm just tryin' to deliver the comforts of Song, Naaaa-aaash..." Tickled me to needle him, "On the other hand, yer just a song and dance man for the Southern Baptist Convention. 't's not that I think the less of you for it, really..."
"Then what, then?" His eyes were burning.
"Then maybe I just...Feel sorry for ya'."
I really thought he was gonna smack me in the face for that one.
He grumbled, "Your fellowfeeling for me is a comfort, Brother Toledo, and maybe your Song will keep you comfort too, as you smoke in hell."
"If'n they even let me keep m'cigarettes, Nash," I really didn't wanna argue with him.
"It's the truth I'm tellin' you!" He was shrieking now, and people were starting to turn. ""I'm tryin' to save you from the fires of everlastin' hell, and yer crackin' little jokes!"
"Okay, you just simmer down now."
"You'll simmer down there!"
"-make me say somethin'-"
-where all fornicatin', boozehound-"
"-that'll really make you mess your one-piece."
He looked at me. "Like what, say?"
"Like maybe you're not wrong, just dumb. And you're too well fond of the grave, and it shows in every jiz-headed thing you say n' do. Yer tryin' to poison somethin' that means a lot to me, and why I don't paste you one for it is a goddamn mystery to me, Nash."
"Because you-"
"No. Shut up. Just fuckin' shut up, you people."
And I walked away. It feels good to walk away strong, knowing that you didn't turn and run because you were going to lose. If it came to fists, you woulda made hash of them, but you didn't have to, and you didn't."

Not the most graceful way of portraying it, I realize. Whaddya need? Wrote it in half an hour in a bar. I'm considering making the Nash character, parenthetically, into a Rex Humbard (of the Hour of Power) style character, later in the book. The Humbard Family played beautiful spirituals, back in the day.
I could quote more, but I'm stopping here. I'm writing two others, which I will synopsize later.



Blogger rich bachelor said...

Other songs from that mix include the Kinks' beautiful song "Oklahoma, U.S.A.", and John Prine's "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore", an appropriate song for pretty much any time since I've been alive, in America.
Were I a tech-savvier type, I'd just put the damn things on the intranet there. Probably wouldn't be hard to figger out. I'll ask the young'un.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Elle Marie said...

I received a mix tape from someone with a Will Oldham song on it entitled "little blue eyes" that I absolutely adore. It also had a song on it (by the Kinks, I believe) that I can't recall the title of...the lyrics contained the phrase "I know a place not far from here" was a good mix, that one.

4:26 PM  

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