I’ve finished the so-called Nashville novel, now titled ‘Fender Benders’ which will be published in November of 2001. Structurally it’s much more of a traditional ‘whodunnit’ than my previous three books. It’s still chock full o’ laughs, of course, but we get a dead body by page three and they start piling up from there.
After spending a year listening mostly to Steely Dan (for Cross Dressing) I have spent the last year catching up on my country music (for the Nashville book). There is a helluva lot more about country music that I don’t know than I do know (actually that’s true for all subjects) but I have had a great time trying to catch up with the genre of music that, for my money, features the best songwriters of any form of contemporary music.
Growing up in Mississippi it wasn’t hard to hear lots of country music even if you weren’t trying to. But I have to admit I grew up listening to Top 40 radio (WWUN and WRBC in Jackson). Of course back then (back then!) Top 40 covered a wider range of music than any radio format today. Two good examples: The top two artists on the Top 40 chart the week of August 23, 1969 were The Rolling Stones (“Honkey Tonk Women”– you gotta love the irony) and Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”). A year later, the fabulous Jeannie C. Riley reached #1 with “Harper Valley PTA,” sharing the top of the chart with Deep Purple, The 1910 Fruitgum Company, and Steppenwolf. I dare you to find a radio format doing that today.
There were other semi-country incursions into the Top 40, Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” come to mind.
Granted, these aren’t among the most revered country songs, but the point is they’re closer to country than pop. And there were lots of other examples of country acts crossing over to pop radio (B.J. Thomas reached #8 with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”; Roger Miller, Glen Campbell, and Kenny Rogers were all pop radio staples, and Elvis was everywhere (notwithstanding his claim to being the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis was a lot more country than rock ‘n’ roll). So even without listening to country radio I was exposed to plenty.
And then there was television. Of course back then there was no cable. In Jackson at the time I think there was only a CBS and an NBC affilliate. We didn’t get ABC until UHF came along at a later date (thus we didn’t get Ozark Jubilee). Consequently, channel surfing was less of a competitve sport than it is today. Given fewer choices, you watched whatever one of the two stations was playing and that included things like Porter Wagoner’s syndicated television show and, years later, Hee Haw. Since we didn’t get ABC until around 1969, we couldn’t have been watching the the Grand Ole Opry per se, but there were a lot of repackaged versions of Grand Ole Opry (“Classic Country Featuring Stars of the Grand Ole Opry”; “Country Carnival”; “Hayride” and others) so I suspect I saw some syndicated version of that.
All I remember is that I loved watching anybody pick a banjo and I loved Minnie Pearl. I also thought Jerry Clower was damn funny, but I don’t think he was an Opry regular. I don’t know where I saw and heard Jerry’s comedy, but he’s one of the funniest and best story tellers there ever was.
My good friend Robert McMullan eventually shamed me out of listening to Top 40 Radio and moving to the FM band. I stopped buying (and shoplifting, sorry) 45′s and started buying (and shoplifting, sorry again) albums. Eventually I went to work at Jackson’s FM rock station, WZZQ, formerly WJDX-FM. It was one of the last ‘free form’ FM stations in the country and the people who worked there before I joined the staff knew their music. Bruce Owen, Dave Adcock, Sergio Fernandez, and a guy named Sebastian played an eclectic mix of music, including a lot with country influence, that formed my early tastes. Tuning in to WZZQ before, say 1975, you were as likely to hear Jerry Jeff Walker, Gram Parsons, or Seatrain’s version of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ as you were to hear Jimi Hendrix or The Who.
By the time I got on the air, there was a strong surge in country rock acts on FM stations, everybody from Charlie Daniels to Poco, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with that branch of the country music tree. Here, in no particular order is a list of the TOP 10 albums that most influenced my tastes in country music:
1. Poco – Deliverin’
2. Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
3. Jonathan Edwards – Honkeytonk Stardust Cowboy
4. Jonathan Edwards – Have a Good Time For Me
5. Grateful Dead – Working Man’s Dead
6. Grateful Dead – American Beauty
7. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken
8. Old and In The Way – Old and In The Way
9. The Band – The Band
10. Neil Young – After The Gold Rush
Except for some of those on ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ this list doesn’t include a lot of members of the Music Hall of Fame, but it’s country nonetheless. And that doesn’t mean I didn’t hear the classics. As a sixteen year old in Mississippi my friends and I spent plenty of time sneaking into bars to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. For better or worse, the bartenders tended to be accommodating, so we’d hide in the back playing pool, drinking watery draft beer, and listening to the songs the regulars played on the jukebox. Now, every time I hear a Merle Haggard song I feel like I’ve just walked into one of those bars.
At any rate, as I’ve been listening to all these records, I’ve been making little notes and, in lieu of incorporating them into an incoherent paragraph, I’ll just throw ‘em out.
Does Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” sound like Merle’s “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” or is it the other way around?
I still don’t ‘get it’ but DreamWorks Records did a disc that was marketed along with their film “The Prince of Egypt” — there are some great songs on this disc, especially Wynonna doing “Freedom” (by Laythan Armor/Bunny Hull); Alison Kraus doing “I Give You To This Heart” (by Ron Block); Faith Hill doing “Somewhere Down The Road” (by Wayne Kirkpatrick/Amy Grant); Reba doing “Please Be The One” (by Gary Burr/Sunny Russ) and Vince Gill doing “Once in a While” (by Vince Gill/Reed Nielsen) –which, for some reason reminds me of Jonathan Edward’s version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” which, come to think of it, probably should have been recorded for this disc.
One of my favorite songs that Leo Kottke recorded was “Buckeroo” — I used to play it on ZZQ all the time. It was only when I was listening to The Very Best of Buck Owens, Vol. 2 that the title took on meaning. In fact as I listened to a lot of ‘classic’ country songs I’d hear songs I knew from other artists and I found myself thinking, “I didn’t know he wrote that song.”
One of the best night’s of research I did for the Nashville book was when I was on tour for “The Organ Grinders.” I was in Dallas and hooked up with my old pal Robert McMullan who by temperament ought to be a country musician instead of an investment banker. Anyway, Robert, his dad (who happened to be visiting), and I went down to the Sons of Herman Hall and heard James Hand. I got a copy of his “Shadows Where The Magic Was” cd and, man, that’s some no bullshit country music. This disc can be purchased from cdnow.com.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: “DILL SCALLION”, a film by Jordan Brady. It’s out on video now. To paraphrase the Chicago Tribune, it’s ‘Spinal Tap’ for country music. This is the perfect companion film for ‘Fender Benders’ or whatever the book ends up being titled.
There are far too many country records to listen to if you’re starting from as far behind the curve as I was. But I listened to as many as I could. The thing that bothers me most is knowing there are so many great records out there that I didn’t come across. I’m always interested in suggestions.
One day I stumbled across a segment on? VH-1? I don’t recall, but it was Randy Scruggs promoting his “Crown Of Jewels” cd. He was talking about a song he was having a hard time finishing. He showed it to Johnny Cash who knew immediately what was missing. The result was “Passin’ Through” a great song Randy does with Joan Osborne. I would love to hear Bob Dylan do this!
I highly recommend the “Crown of Jewels” disc. It contains two instrumentals (is any country instrumental automatically bluegrass?) that I listened to a hundred times if I listened once during the time I worked on the novel. The first is “A Soldier’s Joy” with Vince Gill. (This was also on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” LP thirty or so years ago. For that matter, there are beautiful versions of “Both Sides Now” on both of those records.) The other is “Lonesome Ruben” with Earl Scruggs and Jerry Douglas et al. Man, is that a good song! What I wouldn’t have paid to be in the room with those people when they played that.
Here’s a list of ten records (actually it’s more like 16) that I listened to more than any others while I wrote the Nashville book:
1. Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball
2. Willie Nelson – Teatro
3. Wynonna – Tell Me Why
4. Clay Walker – Clay Walker
5. Merle Haggard – A Musical Anthology
6. Steve Earle – Guitar Town
7. Lyle Lovett – (all of ‘em)
8. Robert Earl Keen – Gringo Honeymoon
9. Allison Moorer – Alabama Song
10. J. Fred Knobloch with “Jelly Roll” Johnson – Bloch & Roll
I highly recommend all of these records — many of which you can find in stores or at on-line record outlets. Block & Roll is available via the Bluebird Cafe’s website. I know J. Fred Knobloch from Jackson. We went to the same schools (although Fred was a few years ahead of me) and the same church. When I was working in radio and also as a nightclub DJ, Fred was playing and singing at local restaurants and bars. I don’t know how many times I heard Fred play at Scrooges, Poets, George Street and other places around Jackson and I never ceased to marvel at his skills. A few years earlier, 1973 to be exact, Fred and his band played at my younger sister Ann’s 8th grade graduation party at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Jackson.
J. Fred has since moved to Nashville and become a successful songwriter and recording artist. With SKO (Schuyler, Knobloch & Overstreet) he had a number one country hit with “Baby’s Got a New Baby” which he co-wrote with Dan Tyler. And Schuyler, Knobloch, Bickhardt’s “No Easy Horses” is also a record worth having.
Fred’s songs have been recorded by all sorts of big shots, including Faith Hill, George Strait, Confederate Railroad, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lorrie Morgan, Sawyer Brown, Rosanne Cash, Asleep at the Wheel, Delbert McClinton, Ray Charles, and many others.
He’s better at the defensive end of the court where he’s willing to take a charge. His hops have diminished to the point where he says you can measure with pieces of paper how high he jumps but he’s crafty. And he can cook too.
What I was listening to . . .
I didn’t go back much further than the classics from roughly 1955 through 1975: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Ferlin Husky, Tex Ritter, Hank Thompson, Faron Young, Marty Robbins, Tex Williams, Loretta Lynn, Hank Cochran, Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Stoney Edwards, Mel Tillis, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Dolly Parton. . .
Then I jumped ahead a little and listened to: Faith Hill, Shania Twain, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, The Wilkinsons, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, Chris LeDoux, Wynonna (with and without her mama), the Forrester Sisters, Rodney Crowell, Randy Travis, Hank Williams, Jr., Linda Davis, Jessica Andrews, Wade Hayes, the Kinleys. . .
And in between I listened to Dave Alvin, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmy LaFave, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt, The Mavericks, Kinky Friedman (I can’t decide if “Nashville Casualty & Life” is the theme song for this book or if it’s “Sold American” or for that matter if it should be Allison Moorer’s “Long Black Train”, but that’s another story). Lucinda Williams, Alison Krauss, BR549, Marc Beeson, John Prine, Hal Ketchum and so many others.
I wish James Taylor would do a country album with Daniel Lanois producing — going back to the tone of some of the country stuff he did on Sweet Baby James.
All of that to say: I love the music that comes out of Nashville (and from Texas too) — not all of it, certainly, but most of it. A good songwriter can say in a three and a half minute song what I struggle to say in a hundred thousand word novel. But just try selling a two hundred word novel.
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