My daughter – The Flower – loves country music, but I wonder what kind of country music she's getting in the era of Florida County Line, Taylor Swift and "bro-country." At our next country music listening session, I'll play her these three artists:
(First I'd play her a ton of Emmylou Harris, but I've already blogged about her – BLOG #77: Comfort Listening II – so forget about her for now.)
TOM T. HALL
I know that one of the reasons the Flower loves country music because of all the stories within the songs. So I'd definitely play her Tom T. Hall. Tom T. Hall's nickname is "The Storyteller." 'Nuff said?
Known primarily as a songwriter, Tom still had seven #1 country singles on his own. The four other songs he wrote that went to #1 by other artists include the massive crossover hit "Harper Valley PTA" by Jeannie C. Reilly. His songs truly are three-minute, expertly crafted short stories. Like all good writers, his eye for detail is super-sharp. In "A Week in a County Jail," one of Tom's #1 songs, the jailer's wife brings the prisoners, "Hot baloney, eggs, and gravy." It's such a perfect touch that he uses it twice.
My other favorite songs of his include his first big hit, "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died," "That's How I Got to Memphis" (which has now become a quasi-standard), "Margie's At the Lincoln Park Inn," "Salute to a Switchblade," and many others. A true craftsman, he wrote several books on the art and practice of songwriting. He has also written novels, short stories, and his memoirs.
No one can tell a story in a song like Tom T. He could even tell a story in just one couplet: "She gave her heart to Jethro / But she gave her body to the whole damn world."
"The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" – the original – with Pete Drake on slide guitar
"The Ballad of Forty Dollars" – a great country yarn about a funeral
"Pay No Attention to Alice (She's Drunk All the Time)" – Tom's stories could cut pretty deeply sometime
"An Ode to Half a Pound of Ground Round" – just for the title
"She Gave Her Heart to Jethro"
"Margie's At the Lincoln Park Inn" – a great anti-cheating song with a killer ending
"That's How I Got to Memphis" – sung by Kelly Willis
Songwriter Howard Harlan's famous description of country music – "three chords and the truth" – finds no better exemplar than Patty Loveless, one of the most consistently rewarding "pure country" singers of our time. Even when she mixes in some country pop or rock or bluegrass, Patty has an honest, straight-to-the-heart country sound that I really enjoy. I listen to her all the time.
Since 1987, Patty has released only fourteen original albums of very-good-to-great music. Her plaintive, high-lonesome voice, wise choice of material, and first-rate production from her husband Emory Gordy, who played bass with Elvis Presley's TCB Band and Emmylou Harris' original Hot Band have created album after album of eminently listenable music.
She hasn't had the best luck with her career. Even though she had five #1 singles, 40 records on the country charts, and won awards and gold records, I don't think she's ever received the acclaim that is her due. When she was on MCA Records, she was eclipsed by Reba McEntire, and later on by sexier, younger singers like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. Patty had vocal cord troubles and record company troubles. She took time off periodically from her career and hasn't released an album since 2009. I understand that Emory is ill, and her priority is being with him, but I hope she's not finished.
I saw her once in concert. I had to drive to the House of Blues in Anaheim (!) midweek to see her. (She wasn't playing anywhere closer to LA.) With a large, superb band, Patty played a very long set with full, committed versions of all her greatest hits along with a generous section of "mountain soul." It was exactly the show I wanted to see and was completely worth the trip. There might be no higher compliment from a SoCal music fan than to say: "I would drive on the 5 at rush hour to see her."
I think I have all her albums except for her Christmas album. The highlights from her catalog are "Honky Tonk Angel," "Only What I Feel," "When Fallen Angels Fly," and the superb "Mountain Soul." (And I have a few choice bootlegs: an Austin City Limits show ... a show from Gilley's, the erstwhile home of the "Urban Cowboy" ... a show from a Merlefest ... and a few others.)
A lot of country music is lightweight; Patty's music has a deeper feeling than most. When I want an honest country sound, I reach for her music more often than I do a lot of other, more famous singers.
Patty Loveless – "You Don't Seem To Miss Me" – live with George Jones, just like on the record -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M17i77wh730
Patty Loveless – "God Will" – Lyle Lovett's sly classic – "That's the difference between God and me."
Patty Loveless – "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" – live from Austin City Limits – a taste of "Mountain Soul"
Patty with Ricky Scaggs – "Daniel Prayed" – live, hot bluegrass
Patty – "Lonely Too Long" -- live
Patty with Vince Gill – "When I Call Your Name" – live – one of his #1 singles
Patty with Vince Gill – "Timber, I'm Falling In Love" -- live – one of her #1 singles
When my kids were young, I didn't prostheletyze about music too much. I didn't, like many of my peers, sit them down and make them listen to the music I loved, first cut to last cut, say, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or "Born to Run" or "Highway 61 Revisited." But if I had, I would have had them listen to the music of Gram Parsons.
I've loved Gram's music since I first heard it on the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album in 1968, and I've never stopped loving it. Gram died in 1973 at the age of 26 (he never even made the Club of 27 with Hendrix, Joplin, Winehouse, Cobain, the other Morrison, etc.) and as his friend Keith Richards said, his output of recorded music was "pretty minimal," but his "effect on country music is enormous, this is why we're talking about him now."
From the Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers to his solo career, Gram forged a new kind of music, combining rock, country, folk, Western Swing, soul, gospel, and whatever else he could use. (Gram called it "Cosmic American Music." Today, they call it "Americana," but back in the late 60s/early 70s, it was considered "country rock.")
He had a checkered career and some of his records are indifferently sung. (He evidently had a huge drug problem.) But he fitted a lot of life into twenty-six years: rich kid upbringing ... prep schools ... father's suicide ... alcoholic parents ... Harvard drop-out ... the Byrds ... the Flying Burrito Brothers ... hanging out with the Rolling Stones ... discovering Emmylou Harris ... OD at twenty-six ... his corpse stolen by friends and burned in the desert at Joshua Tree National Park.
But the legend continues because the music stands the test of time. In the old adage, "The Byrds invented it, the Burritos perfected it, and the Eagles cashed in on it." But Gram's best effort – the first Burritos album THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN – takes country music to places it had never gone before.
I was lucky enough to have seen Gram live once, with the Flying Burrito Brothers. (I never saw him with the Byrds during his brief tenure with that band, even though I did see the Byrds five times. And I never saw him solo; if I recall, he was sold-out at Max's Kansas City.) But the live show with the Burritos was a winner. It was at Carnegie Hall in the Fall of 1970. The headliners were the Byrds (the Clarence White era), the opening act was the Holy Modal Rounders, with the Burritos in the middle. Gram played mostly a big Steinway. The Burritos came out and joined the Byrds for a final encore of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." My memory might be a little fuzzy on the details: I was on mescaline.
And finally, one of Gram's true lasting legacies is introducing Emmylou Harris to the world. She keeps the soul of his music alive.
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels – "Six Days On the Road" – live in Texas, 1973 (with a lip-synced "Hot Burrito #1" with the Flying Burrito Brothers)
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels – "Streets of Baltimore" – live in Texas, 1973
The Flying Burrito Brothers – "Dark End of the Street" – country finds soul
Gram Parsons – "Love Hurts" with Emmylou Harris
The Flying Burrito Brothers – "Hot Burrito #2" – one of Gram's true high points
Emmylou Harris talks about Gram Parsons
... and there are more.