Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000: The Year's Finest Writing On Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country And Moreby Douglas Wolk, Peter Guralnick
Welcome to the first volume in an exciting new annual series that celebrates the year's best American writing about music and its culture, as selected by one of the genre's preeminent practitioners. Covering the gamut of contemporary stylesrock, pop, rap, jazz, blues, countryGuralnick has chosen the kind of pieces that send you right to the record
Welcome to the first volume in an exciting new annual series that celebrates the year's best American writing about music and its culture, as selected by one of the genre's preeminent practitioners. Covering the gamut of contemporary stylesrock, pop, rap, jazz, blues, countryGuralnick has chosen the kind of pieces that send you right to the record store, by both established writers and bright new talents. With thirty selections drawn from more than a hundred sources, including mainstream magazines like theNew Yorker, music journals like Spin, and tiny 'zines and websites where the scribes of the new century are found, this collection will be indispensable for music lovers and lovers of wonderful writing alike.
Read an Excerpt
From the time I was six until I was 12, my family lived on a barren hilltop in Southern California in the tiny town of Casitas Springs, between Ventura on the ocean and Ojai at the mountains. Although we were isolated, we had a lot of deliveries up there on the mountain: the milkman, the Jewel Tea truck (a traveling store of candy, powdered drinks, snacks and bulk white-trash kinds of food) and the Helm's bakery truckmy favorite. I always ran outside when the Helm's truck bumped across the cattle grate at the top of our drive. One day I bolted out through the garage to greet the driver just as he flung open the back doors like it was a gypsy wagon. I practically swooned before the hundreds of cakes, pies, tarts and breads.
"Do you take the truck home at night?" I asked.
"Yes." He smiled at me.
"How do you keep from eating all this stuff when you get home?"
"Well, if you're around it all day, you want to get away from it when you go home at night. Does your daddy sit around and sing all day when he comes home off the road?"
I pondered for a moment. "Well, no."
It was the answer he expected, and so I gave it, but what I was thinking then, and what I understand more clearly now, is that it's not just the singing you bring home with you. It's the constant measuring of ideas and words, if you are a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument, if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the reveling in the melodies, if you are a singer. More than that, it is the straddling of two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to daily life and back with grace. My father is, and does, all of that. I do too, although I cannot claim my father's profound originality and influence. (Indeed, I go by the maxim that genius does what it must and talent does what it can.)
I belong to an extended family of musicians whose members sprawl across three generations. Some occupy positions of great acclaim (my father and my stepmother's family, the Carter Family), others of anecdotal obscurity (my maternal uncle, "Wildman" Ray Liberto, a former raucous honky-tonk piano player). At 16, I did not intend to take my place among them. Tradition was anathema to me; I understood that real rebellion would be to take a straight, nonmusical path. My mother had had a strict Italian Catholic upbringing, which pretty much defined her views about a woman's place in the world, and my father was an enormously visible performer. I had a fierce though silent desire to live a different life. I would not be a housewife, nor would I seek fame as a singer. I would be an archeologist and move to a kibbutz (odd choice for a Catholic girl, and so much the better). Change and newness: That defined life as far as I was concerned.
Then, when I was a day out of high school, my father took me on the road. It was something of a graduation gift, and a chance to catch up on some lost time with my dad. And it was a serious education: traveling the world, watching him perform, singing on the bus. He made a list of 100 Essential Country Songs, which he instructed me to learn, a wide-ranging list that ran from the old history lesson songs like "The Battle of New Orleans" through classics like Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." I was ushered into a treasury of song, and it was thrilling to learn more about my father through his great love for this music. I learned to play guitar from my stepmother's sister, Helen, and from Mother Maybelle Carter, and from Carl Perkins, all of whom were on the road with Dad at the time. Each day, I spent many hours in dressing rooms, practicing chords and the old songs they taught me. I discovered a passion for songwriting that remains undiminished to this day and that led me into my life as a writer and singerinto my family's vocation.
I lasted 2 1/2 years on that bus until, too much feeling the constraint a young girl feels in the constant presence of a parent, I moved to London and then came home and went to college. But an important part of my heart and soul was given form and expression on that bus, and I came to realize how a shared passion forges deep bonds between people, defining a family more deeply than blood connection alone can do.
At the heart of real country music lies family, lies a devotion to exploring the bonds of blood ties, both in performance and in songwriting. Of course, there have been families in pop music (the Jacksons, the Beach Boys, Heart, Hanson). Parents and children have sung all manner of music together or in successionJudy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley, Loudon Wainwright III and his son, Rufus. But the community of country music emphasizes the family connection, revels in it, and there seems to be less rivalry, less need for the children to break away on their own musical terms (although that was an impulse I struggled with for the first 15 years of my career). Country treats family as a rich and fascinating source of material for its songs.
The Carter Family is the prototypical country music family, both for its artists and in the wide-ranging subjects of its songs, but there have been many, many more examples since the Carters began singing in the 1920s. It seems that members of every possible variation of the extended family have pursued careers separately, together and successively. (This is also true in bluegrass and gospel, close cousins to country.) As a teenager, I saw the Earl Scruggs Revue perform perhaps 20 times and held my breath for those moments when laconic Earl would glance at one of his sons, who had just performed a phenomenal solo, in a fleeting moment of approbation. Doc and Merle Watson also had a special resonance for me as performers. They were so closein their genetic gifts, in their attitudes and quiet respect for each otherthat it was a privilege to be in their audience. I was certain that they treated each other the same offstage as on. When Merle died in 1985, it was painful to imagine the enormity of the loss for Doc. He lost not only his son but his musical soulmate. I was thrilled recently to discover that Doc now plays music with Merle's son.
It was riveting to watch the Judds at the height of their career work out their mother-daughter tensions on stage. Every subtle gesturemom stroking Wynonna's hair and the almost imperceptible flinch it provoked, or the intense glances from one to the other that were ignoredspoke reams, and every adult daughter in the audience would relate. In my own performing, I've found it impossible to stay mad at someone you love when you are on stage with them. Arguments and grudges melt away under the spotlights and the audience's gaze. I feel that I should somehow be better on stage, more magnanimous, for the sake of the audience, and sometimes I am better. One of the sweetest moments of my life occurred several years ago, the last time my dad played Carnegie Hall. I had been a little angry with him the day before the show and had brought up some old grievances, which he listened to gracefully. He invited me to sing "I Still Miss Someone" with him the next night. I demurred. The day of the performance, I had a fierce headache and told him I could not do it. I went to his hotel that evening before the show, and he asked again. I declined, but as I watched him walk out of the room I suddenly realized what it meant to him and agreed to sing the song. That night, as we sang together, all the old pain dissolved. I felt the longing to connect completely satisfied. Under the lights, in the safety of a few thousand people who loved us like crazy just then, I got something from my dad that I'd been trying to get since I was about six years old. It was truly magic, for both of us. I don't think we've ever been so close.
Performed by families and often about family, traditional country music spares nothing and no one in its gaze. In the deeply maudlin early country songs about dead babies, for example, lie the hard truths about mountain life. The best in this tragic bunchaccording to my dad, anywayis an old tune called "The Railroad Engineer." The engineer's baby is sick, but he has to go to work and drive ol' No. 9, or whatever it is, so he bids his wife:
Just hang a light when I pass tonight
Hang it so it can be seen.
If the baby's dead, then show the red;
If it's better, then show the green.
Happily the engineer sees green, but most babies did not fare so well in the early Appalachian songs, which were a way to count the losses and gather comfort.
Mother is the most revered member of the family in traditional country music, the person whose mention holds the greatest emotional charge. The "country classic of them all" (again, according to Dad) is "Sweeter Than the Flowers," co-written by Ervin Rouse, who also wrote "Orange Blossom Special." It begins:
Yes, as far as I can remember
She'll remain the rose of my heart.
Mam took sick along in December;
February brought us broken hearts.
The reason we've not called a fam'ly reunion,
We knew she wouldn't be there,
But since we've thot it all over, Mama
We know that your spirit is there.
If this is not wrenching enough, the song continues (with a line that boasts one of the all-time great rhymes):
No, no, there's no need to bother;
To speak of you now would only hurt father.
This couplet just kills me, so to speak.
But modern country, music is shiny and rich and rather shallow, and naturally it speaks less of desperate loss. The dead have all but disappeared, though they occasionally surface. Back in the '80s, George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" had everyone swooning with morbid joy. Babies are more likely to be celebrated in birth than in demise (as in Loretta Lynn's "One's on the Way").
Still, the family faded in country as sexual heat began to obsess most singers and songwriters, just as it does in pop music. Anyone who has listened to old honky-tonk knows that this has always been a theme of country, but today it is the theme: The airwaves are soggy with songs about romance, desire, longing for love, love that got away, love gone wrong, standing up to or by your man or woman, loneliness, frustration, carnal passion, lovers' quarrels, and on and on. It's all real stuff, certainly, and good fodder for song, but the hormonal flushes of love affairs are not the only thing going on in a life. Lost from view are the other potent relationships, forged of blood and shared history, rich with emotional content, ripe for exploration. As Bruce Springsteenone of the most family-inspired songwriters of the past two decadessaid in "Highway Patrolman," "Nothing feels better than blood on blood." Certainly that has informed my own writing. I've written about my children in "Carrie," "Child of Steel" and "Mid-Air"; about a baby I lost in "Just Don't Talk About It"; and about my dad in "My Old Man."
I owe you, Mom.
As I was writing this, I called my dad to ask him about the old songs. I asked him about songs about mothers, babies, brothers and sisters, fathers and grandparents. He gave me rifles, years and the names of the recording artists, and then sang them to me over the phone, verse by verse, more excited by each new recollection. Out of time, he told me to call back the next morning so we could talk about the songs "for a long time."
"I know all of them!" he said happily. I thought about those old songs all night and called him back first thing the next morning so he could sing the entirety of "Sweeter Than the Flowers" to me. He paused at the end as I scribbled down the lyrics.
"There's a whole other group of songs, if you're interested," he said.
"About who?" I asked.
"Dead dogs," he answered, solemly, and rattled off a list of titles. I laughed. But what I was thinking about was that bakery truck and how I had lied to the driver. We do take our deliveries home at night, and everything comes inside, and we're not shy about getting our fill.
Excerpted from Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 by . Copyright © 2000 by Da Capo Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Douglas Wolk writes about comics and music for publications including the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Salon, and The Believer. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Peter Guralnick has written extensively about American music and musicians. His books include the prize-winning, two-volume Elvis Presley biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, and the acclaimed Sweet Soul Music, Lost Highway, and Feel Like Going Home.
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