Tag Archives: Americana

King of Americana

Being the King of Americana
might mean nobody knows your name:
except for the local bartenders
who still serve you just the same,

while you’re sitting on the mike for three hours,
singing songs that nobody knows,
wearing out strings for a hobby that brings
in about thirty dollars a show.

Being the King of Americana,
you know at least a thousand songs by ear;
but in a three-strong crowd, there’s always one who’s loud
with something else they want to hear:

another song about scraping the bottom,
another ditty on the journey down;
and you hate it, but you play it, one more time,
just before you pass the tip jar ’round.

One more round, please, for the band,
who’ll shuffle, waltz or swing
at your command; the next four hours
they’ll play anything.

Hold your applause until you hear
the last guitar chord ring…
then give it up again
for the Americana King.

Being the King of Americana
might mean you know no one cares
about how songs are born and die
in curses, tears and prayer;

and each one takes another’s place
to catch the public’s ear.
You hope to find enough of them
to pass for a career.

One more round, please, for the band,
who’ll shuffle, waltz or swing
at your command; the next four hours
they’ll play anything.

Hold your applause until you hear
the last guitar chord ring…
then give it up again
for the Americana King.

05 SEP 2007

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Why is a Cat Like a Sidewalk?

OK, there’s a joke that runs something like this:

Q: If a hen and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, why is a cat like a sidewalk?
A: Because neither one of them can play the piano, of course.

In other words, life is often a scintillating series of surreal non sequiturs, and to the untrained, or unobservant eye, can seem to be nothing more than random, chaotic events.

Which brings me to my point of the day:

If you have never lived in the country, or have some actual genealogical ties to rural America, or at a minimum lived in proximity to the large masses of flyover country that border upon rural America, how authentic is your country music? If you don’t know at least one farmer, let’s say, or cowboy or rancher or sharecropper or cross-country truck driver or redneck-hillbilly-cracker-coonass-mudbug-hick, and you’re not or haven’t ever been one of the previous, how authentic can your expression of traditional rural music be?

It’s one thing to exploit the milieu of a musical form, either in novelty or parody or insult. And it’s another to pay tribute to a musical form that speaks to your heart or mind. To me, the majority of Americana artists out there today, particularly those who are considered alt.country, fall into one of these two camps. They’ve never seen a cow, or been beyond the Holland Tunnel, or traveled outside of a comfortable cellphone service area. Like today’s punks, who can buy suits off the shelf on Melrose Avenue that have been ripped apart and safety pinned back together, they may buy clothes at Walmart or thrift stores but it’s not because they HAVE to. It’s because they are trying to portray a certain kind of image — the kind that Old Navy with it’s brand new “trucker” hats and Hot Topic with its pressed and freshly embossed Clash t-shirts — an image that is not who THEY are. It’s somebody else’s dream (or considering the plight of the average farmer/truck driver, somebody else’s nightmare). The truth is this: nobody who HAS to work in a shirt with their name on it really WANTS that kind of job. It’s not cool to be covered in grease, or coal black, or road dust, or chicken feathers or cowshit. It’s not cool to be looked down on by the vulture doctors and lawyers who infest small towns and use up three quarters of the phone book preying on their aging, gullible and high-risk-for-accident neighbors. It’s not cool to speak with a drawl on a visit to New York and immediately be thought a moron or retarded, even though your IQ may be at least 20 points higher than the fast-talking, sharp-dressed go-getter who shoved their way in front of you in line at Starbucks.

As I’ve said before, part of the problem is that country music CANNOT be country music and have national significance. It is regional. Cajun music, while perhaps appreciated in Maine, is of both greater import and viriliity in Louisiana. What plays in Mecklenburg shouldn’t be the same as what plays in Bakersfield, unless somebody from one is on tour in the other. Not to say that there shouldn’t be cross-pollenization, or that one style can’t learn from another. But what should be most important to country music fans should be LOCAL music first. And live music, at that.

It’s about interpretation, filtered through experience, tempered by environment, forged by connection.

Or it ain’t country music. It’s, to paraphrase Johnny Cash, Nashville trying to sell records to folks who buy cowboy boots in New York City.

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I Blame Lawrence Welk

I love old songs, and I love mixing it up and keeping ’em guessing.

For that, I blame Lawrence Welk.

Some jazz cats look down on Welk’s ensemble (compared to Goodman, Ellington or Kenton it was a SWEET band), and the singers WERE pretty square. But it was the only TV show that zoomed in on the trombone player. It was the “Elvis movie” of TV – inspiration to a young instrumentalist. The mention of the clarinet anywhere else results in raised eyebrows and looks of shame. And they did tribute shows – Irving Berlin, marches of the world, and so on. I blame Lawrence Welk for giving me to Cole Porter right after I finished devouring Buck Owens on “Hee Haw.” And Willie Nelson’s doing some of those songs now, so I’m not alone in this. Country music is built upon American song history, on “Down in the Valley” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike”. These are songs that New Country doesn’t know about. It’s a different “country” altogether. American music from Scott Joplin to Jimmie Rodgers to Fats Waller, from Lefty Frizzell to Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives, from Helen Forrest to the Andrews Sisters, from the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers.

I could go on and on. I blame Lawrence Welk for that, too.

It means that a barbershop arrangement of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” or a high lonesome rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t out of the question. I blame Lawrence Welk for showing that any song could be included in your repertoire, and that people will dance.

And I enjoy what I’m doing. I blame Myron Floren for that.

He ALWAYS looked like he was having a blast. And that’s what I wanted from the start. I love to entertain.

And I love America, where it is all possible, even for a son of immigrants (and aren’t we all?).

For that, most of all, I blame Lawrence Welk.

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