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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

July 2017: Miscellanea Americana

My current tour is taking me to some places I haven't been to for quite a while, some I've never been to, and several in the Southern half of the USA. I don't include Florida, which is a special case (and arguably belongs more to the Caribbean than the American South) but we're also visiting North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahama, Missouri and Texas. When I tell this to people in New York, they tend to give me a look: a mingling of the raised eyebrow and the worried frown that says 'why would you go there'? But I have to say that while I'm no expert, I generally know the South and Southwest better than they do, and I like it. It may have plenty of problems, but it's often warmer, greener, more spacious, more relaxed, friendlier, and more in touch with its own traditions. It has beautiful old cities (New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah) and vibrant modern ones (Atlanta, Austin, Houston) as well as great historical and cultural riches, and is sometimes, in various odd and paradoxical ways, more English than the North. Kentucky reminds me more of England than New England does.


As an English observer, the thing that strikes me over and over again about the USA is how divided it is. Admittedly, it's a very big country, but the attitude of citizens of one part of it towards citizens of another can be astonishingly bigoted. New York 'liberals' will readily agree with this as long as you're talking about, say, Kansas, while being utterly unaware of their own prejudices. In their ignorance, they imagine the South to be a hotbed of ignorance, and, in their obsession with racial issues, imagine it to be a hotbed of racism. It ain't necessarily so, not at all, and this is worth pointing out because although this sort of thing cuts both ways, the urban elite has a greater hold on the media, the arts, and academia, and tends to be very convinced of its own righteousness.


To keep equating the South with the Ku Klux Klan is like saying Germany = Hitler, or England = bad dentistry. Yet similar ignorance and snobbery is often applied to Country music. I'm no expert there, either, but I do have an open mind, and I appreciate Country music at its most genuine (as opposed to schlocky Country-Pop). If nothing else, I respect the solidity of its musicianship and especially, its songwriting.


Buddy Rich, while en route to hospital after suffering a heart attack during a gig, was apparently asked if he had any allergies, and replied 'yeah, Country music'. That's a good story, but even better is the one about the night Charlie Parker dropped in on a bar full of beboppers and hipsters, all of whom practically worshipped him as a God, and who watched in a rapture of expectation when he walked over to the jukebox. And what he selected was . . . a string of Country records. Mass confusion. Was this some kind of put-on? Finally one of the bolder 'cats' approached his hero and asked why he was playing this shit. To which Bird replied along the lines of: this ain't shit, these are good American songs, you guys should listen to the words.


I'm in Nashville as I write, and, to be honest, feeling a bit over-Countryfied after a visit to the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum. But it was worth the trip, if only to see Elvis Presley's seriously pimped-out Solid Gold Cadillac; and I think I can find a couple of things to say about a couple of records I've listened to in the last couple of weeks.




Alison Krauss's fifth and latest solo album is nothing more or less than a collection of very good songs of diverse origins, beautifully sung and played. I leave it to you to decide whether this makes it, in the scheme of things, something boring or something radical.


For my taste, it's sometimes almost too beautiful, too polished and frictionless to be really interesting, with some of the songs precariously balanced between the classic and the hackneyed. I could have done without Gentle On My Mind and You Don't Know Me, not to mention the string section which underlays some of the tracks like an expensive carpet.


On the other hand, there are fantastic moments: the way It's So Long And Goodbye To You manages to encompass serious Country guitar-picking, jazzy trumpet, and boogie-woogie piano; or the gorgeous vocal harmonies on I Never Cared For You – a song of self-mocking irony ('The sun is full of ice . . . the sky was never blue . . . and I never cared for you') with an inspired ending, a 'wrong' chord like a deep sigh. But as the man said, you have to listen to the words (and somehow good Country music makes me listen to the words more than Pop music does). The title track is a clever and touching twist on an old Country theme, the woman lamenting the tempting-away of her man by a rival, in this case not another woman, but a big city. All Alone Am I ups the ante, in a manner of speaking, by being about a woman whose lover has 'up and died'. In her grief, she feels only 'emptiness' in the touch of another, and hears only the beating of her own heart. The melody and chord changes are about as simple as you can get, but because they don't need to be anything else. This song has the unsentimental dignity of a great Irish ballad, and if you're willing to take it seriously, it's almost unbearably sad and beautiful.


I think it's revealing that while trying to write about an album by Alison Krauss, I've ended up just writing about the songs she's covering – something I suspect she wouldn't mind. So often with Country music, the knockout punch comes from the unpretentious power of the songwriting.


SCRUB BOARD SERENADERS: Scrub Board Serenaders


People sometimes ask me where I find music these days. In this case, I was walking through Washington Square Park in New York, and heard the sound of a clarinet, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and washboard, playing classic jazz. They were very good, and I also loved the fact that they all looked way too young to give a damn about this kind of music. So I bought their CD.


It's wonderful stuff, comfortingly pleasurable without being boring. It sounds like . . . well, like drinking mint juleps and eating BBQ and potato salad under ceiling fans on a summer evening.


There are four Duke Ellington tunes, two famous (Mood Indigo and Rockin' In Rhythm) and two more obscure (Pitter Patter Panther and the spooky Echoes Of Harlem) which show that with material as strong as the Duke's you don't need a Big Band – some of it would probably still work with a solo tuba or a Chinese gong orchestra. You're The Limit is a charming rarity by Ellington's piano mentor Willie 'The Lion' Smith, and sometimes the band all sing, in excellent harmony, on nostalgic standards like Shine On Harvest Moon and Goodnight, Irene. They even do a Hank Williams song, No Teardrops Tonight. In other words, we are leaving the realm of pure jazz and entering a zone I can only define as Americana.


According to the dictionary, Americana is 'things associated with the culture and history of America', which is surely too vague a definition to be of any use whatsoever. In musical terms, it often means Country or Bluegrass, but I think it's something bigger than that: a point where those genres can intersect with the Blues, the early jazz tradition, and rock'n'roll.


I even suspect that Americana is more of a feeling than a definable genre. If so, it's there in the 'jazz' songs of Hoagy Carmichael and the tragically underrated Willard Robison. (It's a fascinating irony that it took a black artist, Ray Charles, to make people think of Carmichael's Georgia On My Mind as a Country song). It's there in R. Crumb's loving portraits of 'old-time' musicians; it was in the slightly surreal antiques emporium I discovered on a stopover on last year's tour in Amarillo, Texas; and it was it in the echoing train whistle I heard a week or two ago when I got lost and wandered into the lush green outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina. Nostalgic it may be, but new generations keep tapping into it; and if I sound like I'm romanticizing a messed-up and divided country, all I can say is that if there's still some romance there, I don't want to be too cynical to see it.