Friday, November 30, 2012

Lester and Earl

While my father grew up singing and playing old-timey music on his guitar -- and listening to it on the radio in the 1920s and 30s, by the time I came along in the 1960s he had sadly (I now realize) been overly domesticated, and I didn't get the undiluted exposure to such music that I might have. Still, it percolated through in those G-runs that populated his guitar playing on even the most domesticated gospel songs he sang, not to mention in his vocal style.

Like everyone else my age where I grew up, I only listened publicly to rock and roll, although much of my favorite music was dominated by acoustic guitar work and a folk-infused flavor -- Lightfoot, James Taylor, John Denver, to name a few... They really weren't particularly cool to listen to, but in the privacy of my own car or room, who would ever know, as long as I blasted Styx, Rush, and Queen when others were around to hear? I of course got a steady dose of country music throughout my entire time growing up, just by virtue of being alive and living in a rural setting -- one could hardly escape it. But the lushly boring "Nashville Sound" reigned supreme in those days and rebels like Johnny Cash had been reduced to singing embarrassing novelty songs like "One Piece at a Time," so while it is still a substrate of my musical memory, it never grabbed me.

In college in the 1980s, like so many my age in those days, I lost much of my interest in the new synthesizer-dominated electronic pop music, and found a revitalized country music scene ready and waiting to welcome a refugee. I turned off Tears for Fears, turned on George Strait, and for the most part didn't look back for the next 25 years.

Looking back, I realize how it took a particular confluence of events to make that happen. Country music had been invaded by young artists like Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, and Marty Stuart -- all of whom had been incubated in a straight-ahead bluegrass tradition. Texans like George Strait and Clint Black channeled their western swing roots. All of this was part of the "new traditionalism," and it tapped into something primal for me -- something rooted in the vicinity of the musical brainstem I inherited from my father, and something that decades of classical music training never displaced. Meanwhile, those same country artists and others were astute enough to notice that bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, CCR, the old Eagles, the old Doobie Brothers, etc. weren't going to be making it onto MTV anytime soon (for the uninitiated, Music TV once actually had music going 24/7.) Shrewdly (and also because they probably grew up listening to it too), the new generation of country performers gave to us refugees our regular fixes of classic rock -- we were just getting them on country radio stations.

My generation also had a lot of us who were growing up, settling down, going to church, and basically being solid citizens -- even while living in a distinctly modern and ambiguous world. The morality of country radio had a certain comfort to it. There was plenty of drinking, cheating, violence, and generally questionable behavior described in its contents, but leavened by an "I know it's wrong to live this way, and Lord I want to change" undercurrent. But mostly, it was the sound.

I'm not exactly sure when it started to change -- sometime within the last 5 years, I'd guess. Even with several commercial-free XM country channels and any number of broadcast channels, I increasingly found I couldn't listen to any of the country stations for more than a song or two before I was flipping channels. For many years I had always tended to divide my listening about 50-50 between classical music and country music, but soon I was listening almost exclusively to classical music. Country music had become tedious musically -- just as predictable and soulless as the "Nashville Sound" of my childhood. To make matters worse, the old moral underpinnings were largely gone. There were the same hard-drinking alleycats that populated many old country songs, but the difference was that now they had no shame over their behavior. In fact, they seemed to be pretty damned proud of their new enlightened selves. Welcome to 21st century America, even in flyover land.

I had my full set of Alison Krauss and Union Station CDs to listen to over and over again, but somehow I didn't connect the dots until I saw them in person this past summer and started to leapfrog from one recording to another and to listen to the XM bluegrass channel. I guess you have to be ready. Of course, bluegrass was also ready for me.

Eventually, all roads lead back to the roots -- and these days if I'm not listening to guys with names like Bill, Ralph, and Jimmy (and of course Lester and Earl), well, I'm probably listening to their acolytes: guys with names like Rice, Douglas, Crowe, and Skaggs (yes, things come full circle) and their renditions of the old standards using modern recording techniques, not to mention contemporary compositions using the stylistic conventions of traditional bluegrass music. I recall a statement by Tony Rice to the effect that he could always spot any bluegrass player who hadn't actually drunk deeply from the old stuff. The implication was that anyone who hadn't was never going to quite cut it in his estimation.

Me being me, it isn't enough just to listen. The guitars have come out, and the old walking bass runs that my dad taught me come unbidden like old friends, the pick flicks across the strings and the chord progressions come without having to think about them.

There is a bit of sadness, since I wish my dad was around to listen to all of this with me. I'd enjoy doing my part to undomesticate him a bit -- I think he'd enjoy it as much or more than I would.

And as I have mentioned a few times, I splurged on a beginner's mandolin that has become my nearly constant companion for the last month or so. I could have just stuck with the guitars, but I wanted a fresh start with an instrument that is rarely used outside bluegrass and other traditional music forms. Besides, I hadn't learned a new instrument since learning to play the Irish tin whistle back in college -- I was due... nothing quite like that feeling of discovery as leaps forward take place. Maybe the mental stimulation will hold off an early onset of Alzheimer's.

Speaking of having this music close to the brainstem, how about a few of my favorite clips of youngsters picking and singing? Lester and Earl would approve (of course, they appear in a couple of them.)

A youngster who needs no introduction playing with Lester and Earl:

And then there is a young Marty Stuart with Lester:

And while there are several great clips of a young Sierra Hull performing with the greats, there is none better than this (her break comes at about 1:30):


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