Currently viewing the tag: "the south"

600full-joe-strummer6) Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me

Before I watched this thing, I knew “Pancho and Lefty” and Justin Townes Earle’s namesake, and that was about it. But this sad, sad, documentary that is a country song in itself went so well with my last Nashville adventure. S.T. and I perched in R.B.’s disaster of a music nerd bachelor apartment and sunk into the life of Townes.

The most memorable part, besides the quiet, woeful songs? Van Zandt’s son talking about how he learned his dad was dead. Switching across the stations one night, the son heard one of his dad’s song, which was rare. Then he heard another one and thought, oh, a two-fer, great. A third song followed and he knew something awful had happened.

Before S.T. and I watched this, and before we saw Old Crow Medicine Show that night for a WSM radio show, we had paid tribute to Townes by having a beer at The Gold Rush. There is a picture of the man himself above one of the bars. When S.T. and I went to take a photo, the middle-afged bartender began telling us perfect, tragic stories about how shit-faced Townes used to stagger home from the place. Sometimes he would leave his lyrics-covered napkins behind, and the bartenders would keep them for him. By telling us these raw, real tales of sorrow, the bartender managed to simultaneously puncture the unserious fun time impression of the country-drunk and enhance it one hundred-fold. All in all, it was a very Nashville moment.

Favorite Townes Van Zandt song (besides the one I put in Friday Afternoon links below):

Oh, and here’s the whole documentary on Youtube!

5) Tommy Jarrell, Sprout Wings and Fly

A group of us has rented a little house in Nashville — by us, I mean the collection of oddballs I met from internet Old Crow Medicine Show fandom, all of whom are at least 15 years older than I am — to see the group at the Ryman for the switch from 2010 to 2011. There was moonshine, black-eyed peas, collard greens, Prince’s Hot Chicken, and S.T. and J.K. busking their hearts out on the corners and side-streets off of Broadway. And when S.T. and J.K. practice their fiddle and guitar, it gets serious — even religious. During their practice at our (for the moment) little house, the DVD of Les Blank’s Sprout Wings and Fly was brought out. “Tommy” they called Jarrell. In their reverence, he needs no other name. I didn’t display my ignorance, but watched and tried to learn the appropriate lessons and display my old time piety.

Jarrell was an old school Appalachian fiddler, absolutely from another universe, even while Blank filmed him at the end of his life in the 1980s. It’s just one of those perfect folk moments in amber that makes one wish to be named Lomax. S.T. told me later that the story goes that Jarrell’s musician father learned “Poor Ellen Smith” from Peter Degraf himself as he sat in jail for the poor woman’s murder. That story is so America, that I hope never to confirm whether it is true or not.

Favorite Tommy Jarrell song:

Here’s the trailer for the documentary:

4) The Clash, Westway to the World

I don’t remember the first time I watched Westway to the World, but my 15th and 16th years saw the DVD nearly worn to splinters. It’s just the Clash talking, with archival footage. Headon is withered and still on heroin, Jones is all teeth and a bit of smarm, Simonon is still handsome and cheeky, and Strummer seems sweet, and sad, and regretful about his key part in fucking up the completely magical foursome had had going.

Favorite Clash song:

And the documentary:

3) Joe StrummerLet’s Rock Again!

Oh,  Let’s Rock Again! I waited breathlessly to watch, sobbed my eyes out when Strummer is passing out flyers to his own gig, or sitting on the sidewalk chatting with teens, or being hugged by hysterically joyful Japanese fans, and then I could never watch it again. The Clash I missed by miles, but if congenital heart defects and my lack of prodigious coolness hadn’t gotten in the way, I could have seen the Mescaleros, dammit. I missed it. I fucked up. I was late. But the whole documentary just makes you love Strummer’s humanity and his earnest, human optimism. (Which, knowing how he turned out, makes asshole, must be a punker, 1976 Strummer even more adorable.)

Favorite Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros song:

And the clip where Joe passes out flyers to his own show — contrived or not, I want to hug him real bad. Strummer was the most huggable of all the old punk rockers.

2) Simon and Garfunkel, Songs of America and The Concert in Central Park

The latter, a 1981 concert that made 12-year-old me infuriated that I had even missed that pale imitation of a folk reunion by six years of life — making the ’60s I yearned to visit seem farther away still. The former, though officially packaged with a shiny new version of Bridge Over Troubled Water a few years back, came to my eager hands as a grainy VHS from an internet friend (I “met” her in an MSN Paul Simon fans group. She also sent me a burned CD of a bootleg of the once-rare The Paul Simon Songbook). That tape was painfully wonderful — finally a glimpse of the duo at their peak, the thing I missed. The thing itself is pretty low-key, sometimes it lags, but there are some good concert scenes, and a particularly wonderful Simon and Garfunkel warming up bit.

Favorite Simon and Garfunkel song:

And Songs of America! (You God damned kids have no idea what it was like pre-Youtube. The dial-up days were dark indeed.)

And the Central Park one as well!

(I finally saw Simon and Garfunkel in 2004, though for most of my childhood I assumed it was impossible. I heard “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Suspect Device” that year. Seventeen was a good musical year.)

1) Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

This, for the distinctive memory of my father rushing home from work one day, piece of mail in hand, and how he popped in his brand new VHS of the flawless Talking Heads doing their thing. He and mom were actually there for one of the nights the concert was made from. Though they were a very New York City band, my parents in LA in 1984 watching David Byrne in his great big suit, dancing with a lamp, makes them seem very California, and very familiar in a way — as if they helped raise me. And the concert is as wonderful as everyone says — its slow build from David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” all alone to the full, wild stage and incomprehensible energy. It’s perfect, and it’s strange, and it’s my parents being cool and before my time.

Favorite Talking Heads song:

And —

— David Byrne and that lamp.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.

Earlier in the show, Stanley called Nathan, his grandson, and the technical lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys, “Ralph Stanley Jr.” Nathan quickly corrected him, saying “I’m your Grandson” and made it clear to the crowd that the rest of the band also knew that this was Pittsburgh (woooo!) and not “somewhere in Ohio?” as Ralph mumbled or inquired as if he didn’t much care. (I know I didn’t).

The Clinch Mountain Boys do carry Stanley. They play lots of songs that highlight their impressive playing and singing, especially Nathan’s a-little-too-smooth style. (Nobody was smooth like Ralph’s late brother Carter, who was silk and butter, but not shiny, uncomfortable vinyl. Carter drank himself to death in 1966).

Christened in his childhood church days — Primitive Baptist, so services only allowed vocals, no musical instruments — as “ the boy with the hundred-year-old voice,” Stanley may not reach the century mark that would officially grant him having grown into that voice. Yet his age and stature surely make more sense when you hear him sing now. And he can sing.

When Stanley sang “Rank Stranger,” I got that elusive, hair-raising feeling that goes beyond just being happy to be there listening. It came when Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua sang “River of Jordan” in the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA last year. I felt a ghost of it when my friends Jason and Stephen played and harmonized on “Little Birdie” last summer. But the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement on “Rank Stranger” is something else.  In their version — and the Clinch Mountain Boys echoed this on Saturday — Carter starts clear and strong, “I wandered again/ to my home in the mountains….” Ralph is faintly harmonizing here, but first it’s all Carter on display. His voice is classic country, but not unpleasantly so. He’s sad, earnest, warm — and then Ralph takes the second verse with “everybody I met seems to be a rank stranger” and his eerie, ancient voice brings the song to an entirely different place. The contrast in the brothers’ vocals — familiar and unearthy together — hits your spine, your knees, everywhere.

There’s a reason, you see, that this Oxford American poem from the point of view of God says “I have… a voice like Ralph Stanley.”

That voice is not as strong as it was at his peak, but it’s still there, that high droning power. While Stanley sang “Rank Stranger” I just clutched at the hem of my dress and felt so happy I could melt. In those moments, I want nothing, and it’s wonderful.

He sang “Little Maggie,” and “Mountain Dew,” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and other Stanley standbys, too. He didn’t need the lyrics sheet again.

And then he sang “O Death.”

The acapella version from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack won Stanley a Grammy in 2002 and cemented his place in the history of country music. He earned that decades before, but the delighted reaction to the song — a dirge straight from the hills of Appalachia with unknown origin — is entirely justified. But it’s still strange that it’s so popular. The lyrics, addressed to death, are frightening to anyone who has suffered a moment of existential angst. I don’t like to listen to it very often. I don’t want to sap it of its power. Also it’s really scary.

At the Art’s Festival, when Stanley began “Death/O Death/Won’t you spare me over for another year,” my only concrete thought was a prayer; let people — for once — shut up. There were some “woooo” and “owww” sounds at the start, but I was in the front and in my earshot people shushed the loud folks. For most of the song, most of the people were silent.

In fact, I have never heard that powerful a silence at a concert. The palpable quality of the hush reminded me of the graveyard near my grandmother’s cabin in Montana. The graveyard has a dozen or so folks buried, many of whom had  only wooden headstones. Those names are now rubbed away. All ten or 12 individuals — including a baby lastname, and a man with a great ghost story/cautionary tale about not taking a dead man’s remains — were all buried in the late 19th century. They died of diphtheria, and they were tucked away in the mountains to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s a strange place, almost pine forest again. The old fence is almost rotted back into the earth. Nature is winning over man, and that provokes big, scary thoughts on being human when you visit. But it’s also a beautiful spot to spend forever, even if your forever means only your bones in the ground. That graveyard also contains the biggest, loudest quiet I have ever heard. The air of the place seems charged (“the very air come and go with me”). I grant that this feeling may come from my own head. I still feel it in my body each time I go there.

That’s what I thought of when Ralph Stanley sang “O Death.”

Ralph, whose hand I shook after the show (I gushed a thank you, and a “you made my whole year!” He might have smiled a little, he certainly thanked me) got a lot of response from that uptight, Pittsburgh crowd. He stood for the whole hour and a half show, even though a chair rested on stage if he had needed it. His face was solemn, which he apparently always was even as a young, shy man. (He used to let Carter talk to the fans.) He mostly clasped his hands like a boy in church, as he waited for his turn to sing.

He tried to demonstrate the old clawhammer power on “Shout Little Lulu.” That was the very first song he learned — his mother taught it to him. On Saturday he had it, then he lost it, and the band, all full of love, covered for him as best they could. And we in the crowd cheered for him. When we kept clapping and encoring, he thanked us all and blew earnest kisses.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. Ralph Stanley is fading away, as we all will if we’re very lucky.

Ralph Stanley is not a living legend because he is old. You don’t clap for Ralph Stanley because you are kind. He is not a feeble relative to watch over and encourage like a child. You applaud because you are selfishly grateful that Ralph Stanley is here to carry all this music with him. He’s carries it for us, and he has enough of it to give. He calls his grandson his son, and his fingers aren’t nimble enough for the banjo, but on stage he can still go back to his boyhood, Primitive Baptist Church days and stand, hands neatly folded, and do what he was born to do.

Richmond, VA

Rodge at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN, New Year’s Eve.