Hits and Misses

Launching an irregular department of New and/or NTM (new-to-me), or RTI (’round-to-it) records; ’NTM’ can be items that might be old, but I’ve just discovered; RTI might be records I’ve been playing for a while, or for ages, or something just recovered in one of my fitful episodes of filing.

• Norah Jones: Day Breaks (Blue Note Records) New
norah-jones-day-breaksA few months ago I was surprised to get a Norah Jones single from Blue Note, which of course is a jazz label.  Norah is not a country singer, though she has recorded country songs.  The single featured a song Norah wrote, called “Carry On,” and it had a country feel (despite a jazz arrangement and an almost countrypolitan chorus); I played it on the show.

The whole album finally arrived a couple of weeks ago.  It contains mostly songs written or co-written by Norah.  Her singing is lovely, as usual; most of the songs are languid, loungy, quiet.  It makes pleasant listening, but—it’s not country.  Besides “Carry On,” I might try Neil Young’s “Dont Be Denied,” and maybe one or two others, but that’s it for HAH.  Color me disappointed: a Miss, but not for Norah Jones fans.

• Becky Warren: War Surplus (no label) New
beckywarren-warsurplus-cover-small-300x274Every time I hear this it gets more country.  The album’s being marketed as Americana, but if you want “three chords and the truth,” here  it is.  The album is not light, though there is an undercurrent of cynical humor (“Three thousand miles from a decent beer”).  It’s 12 songs that are snapshots of a relationship between a rough girl named June (“Call Me Sometime”) and a infantryman named Scott, who cames home from Iraq shell-shocked (now called ‘PTSD’) and finds it all falling apart (“Anything That Lasts”):

Heaven help me, I don’t know what’s wrong/
I went away and came back gone.

I can’t play that one, the last song on the album, because it uses the four-letter s-word, so you’ll have to buy the album to hear it.  And you should.  The writing is brilliant, the singing is compelling, and you’ll experience a lot you haven’t thought about, or maybe buried somewhere.   A definite Hit.  Available HERE.

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Here’s the Met Opry Schedule for 2016-7

whrb_logoThe Metropolitan Opera broadcast season begins December 3rd.  There are only four Saturdays (including the first one) with an earlier start (12:30 PM).  So HAH will be mostly curtailed by only about 15 minutes for David Elliott‘s Prelude to the Met.  Fans of grand opera (as it used to be called) should also remember to tune in to David’s enthralling Post-Met Vocal Program at the end of each broadcast from Lincoln Center.

December 3
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

December 10
L’AMOUR DE LOIN (Saariaho) — New Production/Met Premiere
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 17
SALOME (R. Strauss)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 24
HANSEL AND GRETEL (Humperdinck) — in English — Performance from January 1, 2008
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 31
L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI (Rossini) — Performance from Fall 2016
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 7
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 14
LA BOHÈME (Puccini)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 21
ROMÉO ET JULIETTE (Gounod) — New Production
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 28
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 4
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 11
CARMEN (Bizet)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 18
I PURITANI (Bellini)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 25
RUSALKA (Dvořák) — New Production
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 4
WERTHER (Massenet)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 11
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 18
GUILLAUME TELL (Rossini) — New Production — Performance from Fall 2016
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 25
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 1
FIDELIO (Beethoven)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 8
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Wagner) — New Production — Performance from October 8, 2016
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 15
AIDA (Verdi)
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

April 22
EUGENE ONEGIN (Tchaikovsky)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 29
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

May 6
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

May 13
DER ROSENKAVALIER (R. Strauss) — New Production
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

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No Second Fiddle: Jean Shepard, 1933-2016

jean-shepard-honk-tonk-heroine-classic-capitol-recordings-1952-1962When I heard that Jean Shepard had died, the first thing I thought about was Pete the Cab Driver, as we knew him.  Miss Shepard was Pete Schindler‘s favorite singer, and the last time I heard from him he called to say thanks for playing one of her records.  Pete used to drive in the Boston area, and drop in now and then to our studios on Quincy St., under Sanders Theater, to say hello on a Saturday morning.  At some point he retired from cab-driving and moved to Derry, New Hampshire.  But he’d still call in now and then.

Gordy Brown reports that when he heard about Jean Shepard’s death, he also thought of Pete, and called to let him know.  But, sadly, he discovered that Pete himself had left us, back in February.  I never met Jean Shepard, nor saw her perform live, so in some ways Pete’s death months ago is more immediate to me.  In his absence, I’ll dedicate this note to him. Pete was a friendly fellow and a fan of traditional country music, who used to play Hillbilly at Harvard in his cab.  Sinc and I always enjoyed his visits.

Jean Shepard was country through and through.  Maybe that’s not surprising, as she came out of the Oklahoma-California axis that produced the Bakersfield Sound: Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard.  She was in fact an ‘Okie’, a daughter of sharecroppers who lived until age 11 in an Oklahoma cabin without electricity or running water, until her family moved to Visalia, California.   Even from a young age she could sing; in high school she was playing bass in a group called The Melody Ranch Girls, and caught Hank Thompson‘s attention, who recommended her to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records.  From Juli Thanki in The Nashville Tennessean:

“[Nelson] didn’t want to sign me. He wasn’t really sold on female singers,” she remembered in 2015. “But Hank Thompson was a very big artist at Capitol Records and he could demand things from (the label), which he did.”

With the exception of Kitty Wells and Patsy Montana, there were very few solo female artists in country music at that time. Labels didn’t see much viability or sales potential in women who weren’t part of an act. At first, it looked as though Shepard might have proven the record executives right when her debut single, 1952’s “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,” failed to chart. Her next release, “A Dear John Letter,” a duet she recorded with Ferlin Husky, would be far more successful, selling more than one million records. It spent six weeks atop the country charts and hit No. 4 on the pop charts. It was the only No. 1 song of her career.

Many decades later Jean and Ferlin got together on one of Bill Anderson‘s gatherings, and talked about touring together, singing ‘Dear John’:

Her singing career was assured after that, but almost destroyed when her touring partner and husband of three years, country star Hawkshaw Hawkins was killed in the 1963 plane crash that also took the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas,

leaving Shepard a widow, eight months pregnant and raising a toddler. Just weeks after the death of her husband, she gave birth to Harold Franklin Hawkins II. Her fellow Opry members rallied around her, and WSM president Jack DeWitt told her that her job would be waiting when she was ready to return.

One Saturday, several months after the crash, she came to the Ryman Auditorium and stood on the side of the stage, watching the other singers. A few Saturdays later, she mustered the courage to step into the spotlight begin performing again. Although she was grieving, she resumed her music career and worked tirelessly to support her two small boys. —Juli Thanki, The Nashville Tennessean

Here she is on a TV show, with ‘Hello, Old Broken Heart’, an Audrey and Joe Allison song:

Notice the the nice vocal touches, even a hint of falsetto.  At the same time, you can hear the confidence and determination in her singing; it’s a no-nonsense voice, pretty but straightforward.  She was one of the first women to achieve a solo career in ‘country and western’, as it was then known, starting as a teenager (after the huge success of ‘Dear John’, she began touring with Ferlin Husky), and persevering through a long series of charting (but never again number one) singles and albums.  From an NPR obituary:

[Jean] Shepard was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and she performed there until last year. But she didn’t get voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2011, and many saw the honor as overdue. At the award ceremony, she spoke about the start of her career as a woman in country music. “As you know, there wasn’t none of us,” she said. “But I was happy to do my part. I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese.”

She had a spunky, confident personality, and never more so than in her defense of traditional country music.  Chances are, if we pull a Jean Shepard album out of the library, just about everything on it will be playable on Hillbilly at Harvard—no egregious ‘Countrypolitan’ production, no pop songs, or what used to be called ‘middle of the road’:

After two decades on Capitol, Shepard switched to United Artists in 1973. Her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away”, was her biggest solo hit since the fifties. She had five productive years with UA, keeping her a presence on the charts until the late seventies. During that period, she created a bit of controversy when she served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, formed in response to Olivia Newton-John’s CMA Female Vocalist win in 1974. Of course, she was the perfect fit for an organization dedicated to keeping country music pure, as she was a more staunch traditionalist than any of her female contemporaries. . .  —Country Universe

And she never relented.  From a 2015 interview profile in the Tennessean:

. . . For her entire career, Shepard has been a fierce defender of the traditional country music she loves so dearly, even though the industry hasn’t always loved her back.
“It’s a good fight for a good cause and I mean that with all my heart,” she says. “Today’s country is not country, and I’m very adamant about that. I’ll tell anybody who’ll listen, and some of those who don’t want to listen, I’ll tell them anyway. … Country music today isn’t genuine.”

She was the genuine article.  She may have not achieved quite the celebrity of some of her peers (Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline) or those who followed in her footsteps (Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton), but she showed the record companies that female singers could command every bit of the audience that the males could.  She was no ‘Second Fiddle’:


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HAH History: The Committee Saves the Show!


Ol’ Sinc

Back about 1965 or 1966, Cousin Dave Schmalz was living in an apartment on Upland Rd. in Cambridge, which of course he called Upland Downs.  At one of his weekly poker parties, a WHRB member (whose name escapes me) turned up with the news that there was no one left at the Network (as the station was then called—it was part of the late-lamented Ivy Network) to host Hillbilly at Harvard.  This led to great consternation, much discussion, and ultimately a rescue mission to keep the program going, with long-time veterans and associates: as it turned out, a Committee!

There was Cousin Dave himself, who alone amongst the crew had ‘real radio’ experience (at WMEX, then a popular top-40 AM station in Boston); Uncle Ed Simpson, who had hosted HAH for a couple of years; Old Sinc (Brian Sinclair), who as Uncle Ed’s roommate and high-school friend had provided many of the records the show used when they were undergraduates; Byron Marshall, who had been my roommate and often helped behind the scenes; and for a while (before I left for other climes), me.

The show, which then ran from 10 AM to 12 noon, was joined in the Control Room by David Gesner (known as DurG), who spun the records and faced a withering competition through the glass to see which side made the most mistakes.

At the time, as they may do still, the Cambridge Trust Company in Harvard Square offered its Massachusetts Avenue windows to organizations for promotion.  After I departed, about 1968, our friend ‘Cousin Gwendolyn‘ took it upon herself to create a display for the resurrected Hillbilly at Harvard.  Somehow I inherited the poster, which has lived remarkably unscathed in a closet for all this time.  Just last week, I was cleaning out the closet, and thought: time for a little HAH history.

Of course the show goes back to Pappy Ben Minnich and ‘Barn Howl’ in 1948, but for those of us in what may laughably be called the younger generation, the Modern History of Hillbilly at Harvard begins with The Committee:


Cambridge Savings Bank display (poster and photographs Copyright © E. B. Boatner [‘Cousin Gwen’] 1968; used by permission).

Here’s The Committee closer up, resplendent in. . . well, hats:


Left to right: Cousin Dave, Uncle Ed, Ol’ Sinc, and Byron

And here they are, at their most professional, hard at work:

The Boys Review.jpg

Eventually Ed and Byron moved away, so by 1970 or so Sinc and Dave settled down to regularly hosting the show.  An hour for old-timey music was added at noon, and eventually incorporated into HAH.  Another hour was added, much later, to create the current four-hour show from 9 AM to 1 PM.  More about that anon. . .  /CL

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The 2016 Harvard Football Pregame Show Airtimes

afpnmfyxeigiunegxzxrdukt7Here’s the Harvard football schedule for 2016.  I list the Pregame show airtimes because that’s when WHRB’s invaluable coverage begins, and, in just five cases this year, when Hillbilly at Harvard will end.  We lose only half an hour on four Saturdays, and 1.5 hours on November 19th, for The Game (Harvard vs. Yale), but we’ll make up for that by playing Terry Allen’s “Truckload of Art.”  Don’t ask me why.  /CL

(Dates with * = HAH Ends Early)

Friday, 16Sep, 6:30 pm: vs. Rhode Island

Saturday, 24Sep, 1:30 pm: at Brown

Friday, 30Sep, 6:30 pm: vs. Georgetown

* Saturday, 8Oct, 12:30 pm: vs. Cornell

* Saturday, 15Oct, 12:30 pm: at Holy Cross

* Saturday, 22Oct, 12:30 pm: at Princeton

Saturday, 29Oct, 1:00 pm: at Dartmouth

* Saturday, 5Nov, 12:30 pm: vs. Columbia

Friday, 11Nov, 7:30 pm: at Penn

* Saturday, 11/19, 11:30 am: vs. Yale (pre-game show is 1 hour)

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Bill Monroe Named Our New Trailer!

After a brief, but intense, search for a molded fiberglass travel trailer (which if you’re interested in the gory details or in camping trailers, I describe at length in my personal blog, Walking Creek World; click HERE) we bought a 2013 Casita Spirit Deluxe 17′ trailer from a friendly couple in New Hampshire.  They had purchased it new from the Casita factory in Rice, Texas (not far from Corsicana, which of course always reminds me of Billy Jo Shaver’s wonderful song, “The Corsicana Daily Sun”), and driven it back East with their Nissan Frontier pickup.

Like most molded fiberglass (MFG) trailers the Casita is modest in size and weight, but is fully equipped with 4- and 2-person dinettes, both of which turn into beds (we’ll leave the big one down as a mostly permanent bed), a galley with 4-cubic-foot ‘fridge (that runs on 110V AC, 12V DC, or propane), small bar sink, and a two-burner propane stove, as well as a ‘wet bath’ in front (the toilet and shower share the same enclosure).  It is our first factory-built RV, after years of occasional tent camping.  You can find plenty about Casitas at the company’s website, HERE.

Casita at sellers'

New Owners

We hitched up the trailer to our Ford Expedition, helped by the sellers Janet and John, as I fumbled with the unfamiliar routine, and prepared to depart.  Here we are (smartphone photo taken by Janet, who was sad to see their Casita depart). Though my Expy is more than capable of handling such a light trailer (‘dry weight’ c. 2,700 pounds, maximum 3,500), I had never pulled anything more sophisticated than a U-Haul 14′ box trailer.  So I edged uncertainly out of their driveway, and headed south down Route 125, a busy commercial road with stoplights.  I found myself looking into the side mirrors every few seconds, just to make sure the trailer was still there—though I could feel it well enough.

To ease my mind, I put on the Smithsonian-Folkways CD, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys: Live recordings 1956-1969, in the Expy’s CD player.  And there on Track 4 came one of my favorite Bill songs, “Close By.”

“That’s it!” I said, “That’s the Casita’s name!”  I was constantly looking back to make sure it was, indeed, Close By.

Fortunately, nothing went awry with my hitching, and Close By stayed close by all the way home (hey, another song: “Look What Followed Me Home”!).  Here’s a young Bill, introduced by another country legend, Ernest Tubb:

A commenter on the YouTube video, ‘E1719552’, notes, “That line up is about as good as it gets. Monroe on mandolin and vocals, Red Taylor, Gordon Terry and Bobby Hicks as the trio of fiddle players, legendary Nashville session man Ernie Newton on bass, Jackie Phelps on guitar and Charlie Cline filling in on banjo.”

And here’s our new-to-us Casita, now Close By in the side yard:


If it looks a little different, I’ve added a rain cover to the Fan-Tastic Fan.  /CL

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After 50 Years, the Second Stanley Brother Leaves Us

Stanley Brothers

Ralph and Carter Stanley (promotional photo, probably from King Records)

I have been reading one memorial after another, eulogies, tributes, encomia, to and for Ralph Stanley.  Most of them focus on his voice (click on the links for the full articles):


“You don’t replace a Ralph Stanley,” said Eric Gibson of bluegrass duo The Gibson Brothers.  “His voice sounds like it has been here since time began.”

. . . [Jim] Lauderdale and Buddy Miller produced Dr. Stanley’s final album, “Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow.” The album, which was released in 2015, featured Dr. Stanley collaborating with artists ranging from bluegrass icon Del McCoury to country star Dierks Bentley to Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Miller of the recording process. “There was no one that wasn’t in awe of his voice. He’s a soul singer. He got more out of one syllable than most of us get in a lifetime.” (Juli Thanki in The Nashville Tenneseean)

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once called him “the most perfect singer alive.”

It was a plaintive, nimble and haunting voice that blended elements of Primitive Baptist church choirs and the Grand Ole Opry, music on which Mr. Stanley was weaned in far southwestern Virginia. (Terence McArdle in The Washington Post)

“Ralph Stanley was elemental.  His voice was fresh water, wind, sky, and stone,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (The Boston Herald, AP, no byline)

Ralph Stanley’s harrowing a cappella rendition of the dirge “O Death” on the soundtrack of the 2000 Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” brought him a Grammy Award for “Best Male Country Vocal Performance,” and a whole new level of appreciation and stardom in popular culture. Those new to his singing at the time often stressed how the elderly, frail yet intense rasp of the Virginia tenor’s voice added immensely to the gravity and impact of the performance.

But precisely the same qualities had been heard in his utterly distinctive, soulful tenor vocals since the 1940s, and they could be heard on that song at least as far back as his first recording of it, in 1964, with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers band. . . (Barry Mazor, The Wall Street Journal)


. . . when it comes to Ralph Stanley’s voice, there has only ever been the one, and there will be no replacements. Stanley’s voice has been called “a force of nature,” “otherworldly,” “elemental,” “eerie”. . . His voice sounded so vital and powerful, and yet at the same time so frail and so very, very old. Stanley recalled more than once that, as a child, he was known in his Primitive Baptist Church community as “the boy with the hundred-year-old voice.”

. . .His voice began to weaken as he aged, but somehow this only seemed to treble its power. “I mourn out my songs more than I did as a young man,” he explained in “Man of Constant Sorrow.” “My voice ain’t what it used to be. My tenor has thinned out some. It’s got more cracks in it and it can get mighty rough around the edges and I can’t hit all the high notes anymore. But . . . I know how to use it better. I can put more feeling in now. . . . I can worry those lines like I never could before.”

Like no one ever could before, he might have said. And, now, like no one ever will. (David Cantwell, The New Yorker)

All of it is true, and worth saying.  There is not much I can add.  One of the wonderful things about humanity is our individuality.  Like all performers who rise to the tops of their fields, when you heard Ralph sing, you knew who it was, instantly.  Yet he was no prima donna, no spotlight seeker.  Brother Carter sang the leads; Ralph sang the tenor harmony.  Carter was up front, telling the jokes, and running the show.  And Carter’s voice, though quieter and mellower than Ralph’s, was just as compelling, often deeply moving, but never causing a stir.  It was the startling addition of Ralph’s harmony on the choruses that drove the Stanley sound to another level; they didn’t blend so much as join forces, becoming a mighty wind that brought the listeners to attention, and raised the hairs on their necks.  Even on their frequent trios Ralph’s power drove it to another level.

Years ago, then Boston Globe writer Steve Morse asked Sinc and me what defined Hillbilly at Harvard.  “George Jones,” we said, “and The Stanley Brothers.”  They had the same effect; they took a song, even a run-of-the-mill country song, and blew the windows of your soul open.  You never heard the song again without the lingering after-effect of their voices.  You could rearrange the curtains, but it was never the same room again.  Listen to “Carolina Mountain Home”:

After Carter died in 1966, Ralph thought of quitting, but he carried on, as bandmaster and leader of The Clinch Mountain Boys, eventually an elder statesman of ‘mountain music’, as he called it (not ‘bluegrass’).  He had a succession of lead singers, terrific in their own ways—Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, James King, and his son Ralph II.  Roy Lee sounded, to my ear, the most like Carter, but none of them quite had the longing that came through Carter’s singing, waiting for the melancholy call from Ralph, younger than Carter, but always old beyond his years, carrying the listener to another world.  Nowhere was this more immanent than in the gospel songs. especially “The Rank Stranger”:

Ralph achieved a measure of celebrity outside of bluegrass circles with his a capella performance of “Oh Death” on the soundtrack of the dreadful Coen Brothers movie, “Oh Brother, Where Are Thou.”  The movie unbelievably had Ralph’s stunning vocal behind a nightmarish, fiery scene of Ku Klux Klan devils, but fortunately the rich traditional music of the popular CD overshadowed this sacrilege, and Dr. Ralph Stanley (from his honorary doctorate) and the strong voice that echoed from Clinch Mountain reached a whole new audience.  But for me, Ralph Stanley’s legacy will remain those rich recordings he and his brother Carter made in the ’50s and ’60s, back when the soulful mountain music of southwestern Virginia was just struggling to emerge into the musical consciousness of the rest of the nation.  /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Country News, Old-Timey, Radio Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

HA’ppenings: Del Resurrects Woody!

Del and WoodyWoody Guthrie reportedly left some 3,000 manuscript songs behind, most if not all lyrics without a hint of melody.  Back in the ’30s and ’40s there were no smart phones, tape recorders, and precious few wire recorders.  Radio stations had record lathes that could record broadcasts, but if Woody ever put his notebook lyrics to music, the melodies have been lost.  However, one of Woody’s children, Nora Guthrie, a few years ago began encouraging musicians to set the lyrics to music.  Nora Guthrie is the founder of the Woody Guthrie Archive, and has assiduously spent much of her life keeping Woody’s memory alive with festivals, concerts, special projects, books and recordings, nicely documented in her Wikipedia entry.

Over the last two decades, Nora Guthrie has commissioned folk, folk-rock, and even klezmer musicians to compose music for Woody’s manuscript songs.  But, aside from maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or Bob Dylan, who are devotées, it is hard to imagine a more fitting match than Del McCoury.  Surprisingly, it took a while before Ms. Guthrie settled a batch of lyrics on Del:

[I]t wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody.  “After hearing Del’s show,”  she recalls, “ I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s.  An invitation [that] went to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’  s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’   is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.

For McCoury, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,”  he remembers.  “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his.  So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was.  She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.”  (From the McCoury Music press release)

To my mind, it should have been obvious.  While Woody Guthrie was adopted by the ‘folk’ and politically left elites in New York City as their ‘Oklahoma cowboy’, and while his songs came out of the Depression, they were by no means all political.  He was a writer in the rural Anglo-American mountain/hillbilly/western/blues traditions of music-by-ear, like so many country and bluegrass musicians today, and wrote about all aspects of life as he observed it.  Del McCoury is a writer himself, and has a great ear for a song; look how he made “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Richard Thompson) his own, just to mention two.

The songs on this CD are not so consequential as those, and Del’s touch is light, but astonishingly gives life to Woody’s lyrics, most maybe 70 years old.  Says Del,

“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit.  Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no.  He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs.  I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did.”(From the McCoury Music press release)

And he and the band did, with great aplomb.  The songs flow as naturally as if Woody himself had sung them; indeed, once you hear one, it is hard to imagine a different melody.  The arrangements form naturally from the practiced pickin’ of arguably the best ensemble in bluegrass music.  But the great cachet of this album is that it’s plain entertaining.  It is Woody at his most playful, whether celebrating the local shade-tree mechanic, “Cheap Mike,”

If y’r valves are stickin’;
If y’r crankshaft’s flat;
If y’r losin’ alla y’r bolts an’ taps;
Just guide ‘er and ride ‘er
Downta Cheap Mike’s Lot;
‘Cause Mike knows what ta do!

or making fun of “Wimmen’s Hats,”

—a period piece, to be sure, that might be lost on today’s youngsters.  Then there is the woeful tale of the miner and his gold-digging girl:

There’s a girl living high in the city
And she’s living in luxury untold
How I fell for her line ’twas a pity
Now she’s living on my Californy Gold.

Here’s a video of Del and the band recording “Californy Gold”:

But maybe my favorite is his send-up of “The New York Trains,”  from the perspective of a newcomer from Texas:

The trains run through the buildings
and also underground
And you spend another nickel
every time you turn around

Some good period shots in this YouTube video:

Not all is comedic.  “Left in This World All Alone” might have been written for Bill Monroe or the Stanleys, as it certainly examplifies the theme of loneliness that pervades so much of the mountain music that became bluegrass.  Del McCoury cuts loose with his best high, lonesome bluegrass tenor, all the more remarkable that he can do it at his age:

There is an admonition to keep holding family reunions, even if some are no longer with us:

There never would be any family reunions
If some of  you cry over one you see gone
You’ve got to keep meeting with all of your family
If one or two pass and some others can’t come.

(reminding me of course of the country classic, “Sweeter Than the Flowers”).

And Del also selected a tender paean to a baby boy, who we have to assume is Woody’s:

If again I could be, little fellow
As young and as handsome as you
I would live life all over exactly the same,
So I’d meet, little fellow, with you.

There’s more.  Between satire and sentiment we get glimpses of Woody’s life and experience (“Dirty Overhalls,” [sic] “Because You Took Me In Out of the Rain,” etc.) that simultaneously take us back to times past and the common present.  Del has the knack of making us believe that Woody is speaking through him and the band.  There isn’t much, besides “Wimmen’s Hats” and the price of a subway ride, that we can’t find immediately familiar.  This album of simple, delightful songs is a lovely tribute to the poet, songwriter, and troubadour for one compelling reason: it’s just great fun!  /CL

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Yes, I Know—James King is Dead

UPDATE 3Jun16: We’ve got a couple of recordings of the James King Band live at WHRB, with Ol’ Sinc hosting, from 1995.  I didn’t have a chance to ‘tease’ them last week, so I’ll plan to air one live show from 25Feb95, c. 30 minutes, next Saturday, June 11th.  Let’s make it at the 11:00 hour, so most of you will be awake.  Then we’ll run the second one from 18Nov95, c. 17 minutes, on June 18th.  These featured James the year he recorded his second Rounder album, made his first trip to Boston, and had just gotten his own band together.  Be sure to tune in!  /CL


James King, from his Facebook page (photographer not identifed)

Seems like one obituary after another, but this one is more personal: James King was in the Hillbilly at Harvard studio many times, four or five anyway.  And he was only 57 years old.  Here’s James back in 2010, with the song we always waited for him to sing, Hazel Dickens‘s “Just a Few Old Memories.”  We won’t forget:

More later.  /CL

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Another Songwriter Gone: Guy Clark (1941–2016)


Cover of Guy Clark’s last album, with the title song about his late wife, Susanna.

Guy Clark was a crusty fellow with a laconic Texas reticence, which belied a whimsy that comes out in some of his songs, like “Too Much,”

Too much workin’ll make your back ache
Too much trouble’ll bring you a heartbreak
Too much gravy’ll make you fat
Too much rain’ll ruin your hat
Too much coffee’ll race your heart tick
Too much road’ll make you homesick
Too much money’ll make you lazy
Too much whiskey’ll drive you crazy

and a keen eye for the essentials of life, as in his praise for “The Carpenter,”

Oh he was tough as a crowbar quick as a chisel
Fair as a plane and true as a level
He was straight as a chalkline and right as a rule
He was square with the world he took good care of his tools

Guy was speaking from experience; he was a luthier, a craftsman in wood as well as words, a poet.  Adam Sweeting in The Guardian:

Guy Clark, who has died aged 74, once commented that his twin occupations of songwriting and guitar-building were “just a way to while away the time until you die”. The many artists and listeners who have been touched and inspired by his work would beg to differ. Clark was never a chart-busting phenomenon, but he was the embodiment of the painstaking craft of the songwriter, where meaning emerged from fine details, carefully observed and polished. . .

Guy’s songs were more personal than Merle Haggard‘s, the references drawing more on his own experiences and images, but he had the same knack of translating them into the universal, as in “Let Him Roll”:

Well he could cut through the years to the very night
When it ended, in a whore house fight
And she turned his last proposal down
In favor of being a girl about town

Now it’s been seventeen years right in line
And he ain’t been straight none of the time
Too many days of fightin’ the weather
And too many nights of not being together

So he died…

Well when they went through his personal effects
In among the stubs from the welfare checks
Was a crumblin’ picture of a girl in a door
An address in Dallas, and nothin’ more . . .

As with Merle, for Guy verisimilitude was the highest criterion:

A laconic though riveting musical storyteller, Mr. Clark was adept at getting at the heart of an experience or an event.
“I really work hard at being true,” he told American Songwriter magazine. “And that’s where the uniqueness of the songs come out. I couldn’t have made them up.” (Bill Friskics-Warren in The New York Times)

Guy’s much younger cousin, Mary Lee Grant, found learning from Guy Clark as valuable as the literary pretensions of the eastern Ivy League:

When I studied literature at Yale, my professors transmitted the notion that the green hills of England and the streets of New York were the subjects worthy of great writing. But I knew differently, because I had Guy. I knew that the parking lot behind a Texas bar was art: “Sittin’ on the fender of someone else’s truck, drinkin’ Old Crow whiskey, and hot 7UP.” He had worked on the shrimp boats of Rockport as a teenager, and he showed me that they were poetry, as they sailed for the Mexican Bay of Campeche with the deckhands singing “Adios Jolie Blonde.”

I met Jack, the wildcatter in “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” when visiting my Aunt Rossie, (Guy’s grandmother), in the bleak little West Texas town of Monahans. She always fascinated me as a child because she had a wooden leg, which the doctor had amputated on the kitchen table when she was 12. She was a bootlegger and ran the Clark Hotel, where old men came to live and often stayed until they died. Jack was her boyfriend. I had seen the “old men with beer guts and dominoes, lying about their lives while they played.” Because of Guy, the traditional New Haven bar of Mory’s, where Yalies drank from silver cups and the Whiffenpoofs sang, held no more glamour for me than the Green Frog Café, where Jack sipped beer and played Moon and 42. . . (from the Corpus Christi Caller Times)

Guy visited Hillbilly at Harvard twice, once in our old studios under Sanders Theater, where Ol’ Sinc intuitively knew to lubricate the session with a couple of Dixie cups and a bottle from Tennessee.  That was in Sumptuous Studio A; I was in A Control, and put young Number One Son Andy on the counter so he could see.  Guy played “Blowin’ Like a Bandit” for him, Andy’s favorite from Better Days (1983), an album I played a lot at the time.  Later albums had less effect on me; the songs often seemed quirky and less relevant for a country show, though still little masterpieces of insight, irony, and wit.  The later songs I remember most were the country songs that others covered, especially Bobby Bare‘s version of “New Cut Road,” and Ricky Skaggs‘s hot-pickin’ “Sis Draper.”  Guy visited HAH again, with compatriate Verlon Thompson, but alas, there was no Sinc to grease the skids; it was just a duty call for him.

When I think of Guy Clark’s songs, most of all I recall “The Randall Knife,” the tribute to his father:

Who will write as moving a tribute to Guy?  James Beaty, in the McAlester News-Capital (Oklahoma), comes close, perhaps:

When I think of Guy Clark, I think of the young lion from the 1970s, who, with “Old No. 1,” amazed me upon first listening. It’s high on my list of greatest debut albums ever.

With Clark racked by illness in recent years, I felt shocked to see him aged, frail and seemingly in fragile health on some of his later television appearances. Sometimes, he seemed to walk with effort, occasionally using a cane. He appeared determined to keep performing as long as possible.

Still, he had the voice of a true American poet. During his later years, I couldn’t help but remember the lyrics of arguably his most well- known song.

“To me, he’s one of the heroes of this country, so why’s he all dressed up like those old men?”

Then, it hit me.

He was a desperado waiting for a train.

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