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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

New Morning

Bob Dylan

New Morning

My introduction to Bob Dylan was decidedly non-standard.  Of course, there are many Bob Dylans to whom one can be introduced, but popular radio has long since chosen its champions.  Whether it’s the pre-Newport “Blowing In The Wind” or the post-Newport “Like A Rolling Stone”, most people’s entry into Bob Dylan is fairly predictable.  Later they’ll debate the merits of Desire vs. World Gone Wrong, but they all know “Like A Rolling Stone”.

I didn’t.  Growing up, I had no idea who Bob Dylan was.  Music wasn’t a part of our house.  There was a hi-fi system — a pretty nice one, actually — but it was turned on once a year, at Christmas time, to play carols during the month of advent.  The rest of the year, the stereo lay dormant, awaiting next December.

I’m certain it wasn’t always that way.  Nobody buys a quadrophonic hi-fi system to let it sit in the corner.  I would guess it was probably because of us.  Once there’s a baby in the house, the chances for things like music diminish greatly.  And once there were four children in the house, I imagine it was pretty much impossible to find a time of day when at least one infant wasn’t asleep.  So the stereo speakers became little more than lamp stands, destined to sing “Frosty the Snowman” but once a year.

On the shelf, beside the hi-fi system, there were rows of reel-to-reel tapes.  Not 8-tracks, and not cassette tapes (although we’ll get to those), but reel-to-reel tape spools that you would mount on a spindle, thread through the play heads and onto another spindle, then flip a switch to play.  I don’t think most people still had these in their homes, if they ever did.  And I don’t think that many record companies release much commercial music in that format.  The reels were in plain white cases, with typewritten labels that said things like IRON BUTTERFLY, FLIP WILSON, or LED ZEPPELIN.

This bears some explanation.  My father spent most of my early years at sea, on two or three-month tours aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific.  That’s a long time to be on a boat with not much to do in the rare off-hours.  Record players don’t do well on rolling seas.  Cassette recorders were new and expensive.  But on every ship were at least a couple of sailors who had access to magnetic tape and a recorder that could copy them, so I imagine a hearty black market in reel-to-reel tape trading came into being.  However it came about, stacks of those tapes washed up to die on my father’s bookshelf, never to be played again.  He kept the reels long after the player stopped working.  I think they eventually got thrown away, unless they still occupy a box somewhere in my parents’ attic.

A small handful of cassette tapes had made their way into the collection, and survived sitting in the back of a closet with a guitar that my father had purchased in Singapore and never learned to play.  The cassettes were commercial releases, and each bore a label that said “FOR SALE ONLY ABOARD US NAVAL SHIPS AFLOAT”.  One of those cassettes pictured a curly-haired unshaven fellow on the cover.  The name of the album was New Morning.  The name of the fellow was Bob Dylan.

So at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I put that tape into my newly-purchased boombox and gave it a listen.  I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t.  I thought it was awful.  Laughably awful.  Here was this guy, mumbling out of rhythm over weird lite-jazz instrumentation and absurd skat singing.  It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to me.  I put the cassette back in the closet and continued listening to Duran Duran for a few more years.

In college, I got the more standard introduction to Bob Dylan: Blowing In The Wind, Highway 61, and all that.  Fell in love with Blood On The Tracks.  Learned to play most of World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You.  Struggled to like Oh Mercy.  And then finally found that cassette and listened to New Morning again.

Let’s face it: it’s a weird album.  I can’t really blame my 13-year-old self for turning it down.  If it had been the only album Bob Dylan had ever made, nobody would have ever heard of it.  As a solo album, it doesn’t really stand on its own.  But as a Bob Dylan album — as part of the story of Dylan’s career — it’s fascinating.  Still strange, but fascinating for that very reason.

25th Anniversary

25th Anniversary

Tennessee Ernie Ford

If you look through thrift store record bins with any regularity, it doesn’t take long before you become acquainted with the name of Tennessee Ernie Ford.  The man made a lot of records, sold a lot of records, and most of those records were, to put it bluntly, utter rubbish.  It was as if Tennessee Ernie Ford was a man who just had no notion of when to say no.  Every good and bad idea that he and his record label ever had ended up recorded and released to the public.  There’s no arguing whether the man can sing — he’s as strong a baritone as most any ever recorded.  The problem is what he sings.  During his brief flirtation with jazz and rockabilly, Ford recorded some truly dynamite numbers.  And despite its campiness, there’s really no denying the he earned his kudos for his take on “Sixteen Tons“.  But then there’s all the other stuff.  The volumes and volumes of other stuff.  The incredibly corny patriotic songs, the endless stream of commercial gospel recordings, and the outright bizarre “folk” songs performed with theatrical melodrama.

The 25th Anniversary album, for better or worse, captures the full range of Ford’s career.  It’s a totally fair representation of all the good and bad the man could do.  When it’s good, it’s very, very good.  When it’s bad, it’s astoundingly bad.  The middle ground is surprisingly narrow, and has everything to do with the backing musicians.  With Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West behind him, Ford could do no wrong.  Singing duets with Kay Starr, Ford could do no wrong.  Gospel singing with a brass band behind him — kind of problematic.

If ever there was an argument for the iTunes model of pay-by-the-song downloads, Tennessee Ernie Ford is it.  A two-record set like the 25th Anniversary is about a record and a half too many.  Of course, with all of those albums weighing down the record bins of America’s thrift stores, you can probably beat the iTunes price and get yourself a new vinyl placemat along with the deal.

Playing Silk

Playing Silk

Buddy Charleton

A couple of weeks ago, the world lost a marvelous musician and a hell of a good guy. I got to know Buddy Charleton just one year ago, when I started taking pedal steel guitar lessons with him at Billy Cooper’s Music in Orange, VA. It was impossible not to be immediately taken with Buddy. He had such an easy, patient demeanor. As a teacher, I wouldn’t say that he had a method. It was mostly just hanging out with him, trading stories. Then he would say, “Have I shown you this lick?”, then play some run on the guitar, then repeat it while I fumbled through it, trying to get a handle on what he was up to. Some times I would get it; most of the time I wouldn’t, but Buddy wasn’t deterred either way. “Keep your back straight”, he would say. “Keep your elbows in.” “Stay relaxed.” Ten strings, three finger picks, a steel bar in my left hand, three foot pedals, four knee levers, a volume pedal, all to be manipulated in unison. Stay relaxed. OK.

Buddy was an old man by the time I met him – a man without a damned thing to prove to anybody. He had played with Patsy Cline, toured with Ernest Tubb, recorded with Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn and Jean Shepard. He was a Steel Guitar Hall of Fame inductee; his students had played with Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks. But when I met him, he was mostly an old man living with his wife in a trailer in Orange County, dying of throat cancer. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with them before he passed on, recording his music and stories for posterity.

Playing Silk is definitely the work of a man with nothing to prove. After doing thirty or so Nashville studio albums with different bands, Playing Silk is the record that Buddy wanted to make for himself. Sure, there are some of the jazzy barn-burners that made his fame with the Texas Troubadours – tunes like “Almost to Tulsa” – and an instrumental rendition of “Waltz Across Texas”. But then there are also oddities like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I must have listened to that track a dozen times before I realized that what I was hearing was the sound of pedal steel guitar with no accompaniment – no rhythm track, no bass, just Buddy coaxing symphonic sound out of his instrument. These are instrumental tunes about Buddy at home: “Kay Lee’s Song”, written for his wife; “Gizmo”, written for the pet raccoon, now also deceased; “Bud’s Therapy”, written as an exercise for his students. The whole thing was self-produced and available either in person or mail order c/o Buddy Charleton, General Delivery, Mine Run, VA. Probably almost nobody owns the album who didn’t know Buddy personally.

I will miss the man. I’ll miss his boyish grin when he played music; I’ll miss his stories about Patsy Cline and Ernest Tubb; I’ll miss the vastness of knowledge that he attempted to impart to me and so many others by way of the pedal steel guitar. As tall as his legacy is, it can’t compete with the sweet old man whom I met living in that trailer in Orange County.

Devotion & Doubt

Devotion & Doubt

Richard Buckner

For people who aren’t in the performance business, it often comes as a surprise when they find out that their favorite stage performers are indeed putting on an act.  On the one hand, it seems like it should be obvious.  We know it’s a show; we know that it’s entertainment, not ‘real life’.  And yet, because the public face is the only one that we usually see, we’re nonetheless surprised when we see an artist off-stage and find out just how much of an act the show is.  We can’t wrap our heads around the fact that Alice Cooper is a born-again Christian and an avid golfer, that Pee-Wee Herman had his extensive pornography collection seized by the police, or that television evangelist Ted Haggard spends his spare time cooking crystal meth with gay hookers.  Because we forget that all of them are character actors, and that the spectacle is not the person.  It’s no less true in music, politics, or theater.  The performer is the product, and the persona is the marketing.

I know this — I do this for money — yet even I get tricked from time to time.  The Pony Princess and I went to see Richard Buckner at The Southern in Charlottesville.  I had been listening to Devotion & Doubt for a few months, and I had a pretty good idea what to expect.  Melodic, softly arpeggieated guitar, whispered, brooding vocals, and a seated audience in a mostly hushed room.  Because it’s that kind of music.  It’s usually what singer-songwriters do, and why I usually don’t much like seeing singer-songwriters play live.  Buckner’s music is beautiful, powerful stuff, but it almost universally has the same tone.  You come expecting to see a man digging into the depths of his own personal heartbreaks, and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s his act, and he’s a master of it.

So, we stuck around after the show to say hello and thanks.  TPP has been a fan for years; I only more recently found out about Buckner, but I know that as a performer, I like it when people acknowledge that I’ve just done something.  So we hung out while Buckner made his way into the now-lit room to mingle with the scattering crowd.  The brooding was gone.  The man groaning under the weight of his own demons was gone.  Utterly evaporated.  The guy shaking hands and laughing with the audience members was friendly, chatty, carefree.  He told us about his quirky collection of guitars, about how he used to tour with a steel player but found it too much trouble, and generally just shot the shit with anybody who was interested.  Like Alice Cooper hitting the links after a heavy metal festival, Buckner clearly didn’t take his stuff anywhere near as seriously as his Product might suggest.  He had a character that people found they could relate to, so he plays that character in his performances.

That’s not a bad thing.  It’s a good thing.  If I were performing songs that I had written fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t want to still be the same person that I was then.  But I might still want to dig into that character, to perform as the character who penned that song and made people care about it.  In most of my own musical pursuits, I’m playing songs that were written decades before I was born, and I play those characters.  I wear a hat and boots despite never having ridden horses, or I lead shanties despite having never sailed at sea.  I act the playboy despite actually being pretty shy; I act the lout despite being an introvert.  It’s show business, folks, and there ain’t a thing wrong with it.

The Balfa Brothers

The Balfa Brothers

Play Traditional Cajun Music

I’m not a flag-waver and never have been, but I don’t mind saying this: The United States are home to some of the greatest music traditions in the world.  I came to particularly appreciate this while traveling in France.  They’ve got trad music in Brittany, a bit of Basque music down in the Basque country, and some authentically Parisian styles, but most of the rest is just ‘European’ — a couple thousand years of influence blended together into no particular regional style.  Here in the States, we have two great things going for folk music: immigrant populations from around the world, and a huge country with a high degree of geographic isolation.  It’s a perfect recipe for diverse and distinct musical styles to emerge.  So we get Cape Breton stuff in New England, Scots-Irish influenced old-time in Appalachia, African spirituals in the Southeast, Cajun music in Louisiana, Native American styles throughout the plains, Tex-Mex conjunto in the Southwest, Hawaiian guitar on the islands, to say nothing of jazz, the blues, rock and roll, swing, and on and on.  If you can’t find traditional American-born music that you like, then you truly haven’t tried very hard.

Which means that exploring American folk music can easily be a lifetime pursuit, and is for a lot of people.  It’s as deep a rabbit hole as you care to make it.  You can casually pick up a Smithsonian Folkways compilation and skim the surface of a lot of things, or you can spend the rest of your life in East Kentucky learning everything there is to know about a handful of particular musicians.

As for Cajun music, I’ve only barely started dipping into it.  I’ve long been aware of it, always liked the bits of which I was aware, but never really put my toes very far into the water.  That started to change for me in France, of all places.  On a night out in Paris, I ended up at a punk club dancing to the sounds of Sarah Savoy and the New Francadians.  They do their share of traditional Cajun, but also cross into the classic country music that I’ve been performing the last few years.  But instead of Hank Williams, it was Hank Williams translated into Cajun French.  The Parisian punks loved it, and I did, too.

So I did some homework.  I already had some of the real 1920s and 1930s vintage Cajun from the early days of recording: bands like the Hackberry Ramblers, scratchy old recordings with no bass tones and indistinct vocals.  So I decided to fast-forward to the folk revival, and picked up The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music.  While the title may lack creativity, the music more than makes up for it.  It is, without question, dance music.  The rhythms are smooth and slippery, the vocals pained and unrestrained, the accordion rich and booming.  It has quickly become one of my favorite albums, both to listen and dance to.

I don’t know how far down the Cajun rabbit hole I’ll venture.  As with old-time music, it’s bottomless. But if you’re looking to dip in, this album is about the best place to start that I can imagine.