Saturday, June 23, 2012

Trinomials: Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen: The Road Goes On Forever


Since the world of Country music is rife with trinomials, and since it's been all of two months since we posted anything from one of our most beloved favorites here on Planet Starmaker, here's an eleventh-hour dance hall kicker from true-blue Texan cowboy country artist Robert Earl Keen, on longplay from his utterly incredible 1996 live cassette, released with some fanfare in the usual digital formats in 2004. The lyrics alone show what this man's worth: true folk fans will recognize the cadence, the lyrical structure, and most notably the fine narrative turn in the final verse as picture-perfect use of the ballad form, though the audience seems content to merely holler along.

Trinomials: Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Conversation with the Devil


While we are on the topic of progressive country songwriters from Texas with three names, I present Ray Wylie Hubbard, who collaborated extensively with Jerry Jeff Walker in the 1970s. You all can google up Mr. Hubbard's biography, so I am going to tell you how I discovered his music.

I was walking home from work one evening in the mid-2000s, when I was living in Toronto. I always cut through Grange Park on my way to/from work. The park is located behind an art school, and on a nice day the park would be filled with students and other harmless slackers who had nothing better to do than smoke dope. On really nice spring and fall days this park would contain so many weed smokers that there would be a giant mushroom cloud of smoke above the park, and you would get high from second hand smoke by just walking through the park. I miss Canada.

Anyhoo, as I was meandering home through the dope smokers, the song "Conversation with the Devil" popped up on my Zune (stop laughing). This song was my introduction to Hubbard. The song describes the narrator finding himself in hell, and trying to sweet-talk the devil into letting him out. As the devil is giving the narrator a tour of hell, the devil points out the murderers, rapists, and politicians serving their time in eternal damnation. My favorite lines: "What you won't find up in Heaven are Christian Coalition Right Wing Conservatives, country program directors, and Nashville record executives." I literally giggled to myself as I made my way through the fog of marijuana smoke. This song is brilliant!

Hubbard's albums of the last 20 years are some of the best alternative country records you will ever hear. They contain masterful storytelling, insightful observations on daily life, and lessons for the road-weary. That last sentence was pretentious blogger-speak for, "makes ya think." Especially when walking through a park full of stoners.

Trinomials: Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker: Dear John Letter Lounge

[purchase (vinyl only)]

The progressive country music movement of the 1970s spawned many three-name acts, among them Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willis Alan Ramsey, Michael Martin Murphey, David Allan Coe, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, B. W. Stevenson and Billy Joe Shaver. Even Johnny Paycheck, trying to establish his '70s outlaw creds, added a third name and briefly recorded as "John 'Austin' Paycheck."

But, the archetypal trinomial progressive country singer is Jerry Jeff Walker. The name Jerry Jeff Walker seems to fit the man. He sings and write like someone who should be named "Jerry Jeff." Indeed, it's such a perfect name, it almost seems like it couldn't be real. It isn't. He was born 70 years ago in New York with the name Ronald Clyde Crosby.

So from where did the "Jerry Jeff Walker" sobriquet come? I found a zillion sources stating with great authority that Ronald Clyde Crosby adopted the stage name Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, just as he was establishing himself as a part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. None of these citations offered details on the origins of the name. Finally, thanks to Google Books, I came across a Texas Monthly profile of Jerry Jeff Walker from 1979, written by humorist Roy Blount Jr. Humorist Roy Blount Jr. Not noted biographer Roy Blount Jr. So, who knows if this is true: "Jerry came from his drinking ID; Jeff came from (he thinks maybe) the movie star Jeff Chandler and Walker either from a musician named Kirby Walker or the movie star Robert Walker."

Regardless of its origins, the man with those three names put out some great music over the years. "Dear John Letter Lounge" is ripped from one of his best records, It's a Good Night for Singing. Neither the album, nor this song, has never been put out on CD.

Bonus track: The trinomial Jerry Jeff Walker spawned a trinomial band: (the) Lost Gonzo Band. The Gonzos backed Jerry Jeff during his glory years. Here the Gonzos offer up the original version of bandmember Gary P. Nunn's "The Last Thing I Needed," later made famous by Willie Nelson.

Lost Gonzo Band: The Last Thing I Needed

[purchase (vinyl only)]

Trinomials: Hank Williams Junior

Hank Williams Jr.: Mobile Boogie


What a difference a single word can make. Hank Williams: The architect of all that is right with country music, the tortured soul who grabbed listeners with his songs of pain and sorrow, good times and wild times, with an aching voice and a poet's gift for language. Hank Williams Junior....well, not quite in that league.

That's the paradox of the "Junior" suffix. Your dad's name may kick open a few doors for you. But, it dooms you to a life of being measured against your forbearer's legend -- and usually not favorably.

Technically, he's not even "Hank Williams Jr." His real name is Randall Hank Williams (as you may know from the many times he proclaimed "this is rockin' Randall Hank" during the musical introductions to Monday Night Football), dad was born Hiram King Williams.

While Hank Williams Jr. is no Hank Williams, I would argue with anyone claiming that Junior made it solely on his father's name. Certainly, the father's legend helped the son land a recording contract while he was still young. Hank Jr. released his first record at age 15. Throughout the '60s and early '70s, he put together a string of mid-charting hits. Williams the younger's voice doesn't much resemble his father's, nor did his records from this period, which were pure Nashville countrypolitan. But, countrypolitan has its place, and Williams's output compares favorably to what was played on country radio at the time.

Then, in 1975, he suffered a near-fatal mountain-climbing accident in Montana. Williams emerged not only with a new face (replacing the one smashed against the rocks of Ajax Mountain), but a new sound -- influenced by Waylon Jennings, the Charlie Daniels Band and southern blues. As he healed, he recorded sporadically. Those albums were impressive, particularly Hank and Friends -- featuring musicians from CDB and Marshall Tucker -- The New South and One Night Stands. ("Mobile Boogie" is taken from that latter release.)

As Williams recovered and returned to a frenetic pace of recording and touring, that level couldn't be maintained. His records became predictable and, well, dumb. The right-wing form of political correctness seeped into his writing, and he also displayed a predilection for singing songs about himself and the challenges of being Hank Sr.'s son. Hank Williams Jr. still occasionally puts out interesting material -- 2002's Almeria Club Recordings is a fine amalgam of country and blues. But mostly his output for the past three decades is forgettable good ol' boy stuff.

Maybe Hank Sr. would have faced a similar decline had he survived into his 30s and beyond. Or maybe it's a trinomial jinx. The offspring who have followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams Jr. -- Hank III and Holly Williams -- perform with only one space in their names and have put out great music.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Trinomials: Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White: Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You?

You take another shot, but the bourbon has no taste anymore and sure as shit ain't keeping the cold out.  The cluttered, empty room's a mess but you'll be damned if you touch a thing.  A toast, then: to endings.  At least you know where you are with them.  Beginnings are more obtuse: you'll never guess which road they're gonna take you down, sometimes not even while you're walking them.  Endings are concrete.  You can count on them.  So why is it so damn cold?

To endings, then.  And to hope: the hope that you're through with beginnings.  A voice in your head tells you this will pass.  One more ending.  Because you know where you are with endings: at the beginning.  The sun will come out and the cold will be gone.  But not tonight.  You take another shot, and damn if the bourbon doesn't taste just fine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Trinomials: Andy Fairweather Low

Andy Fairweather Low : Dancing In The Dark


Welsh guitar wizard Andy Fairweather Low is one of the great Zeligs of British Rock And Roll and apparently not a bad tennis player either. Andy has played with just about everybody--from Eric Clapton on his seven million selling Unplugged album to Roger Waters on his 2007 Dark Side of the Moon Tour. Then there's Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, George Harrison, Gerry Rafferty and hundreds more.

Andy came to fame as lead vocalist ( somewhat Sting like) and teen pin-up with the pop band Amen Corner and hit #1 in 1969 with a song called "(If Paradise Is)" Half As Nice".  When Amen Corner split Andy retired for a few years before returning with his 1974 album Spider Jiving, featuring his wah wah driven Top 10 hit "Reggae Tune"From that album we present "Dancing In The Dark" a song championed as "slyly hermeneutic" by critic Robert Christgau. Nearly 40 years later, I don't know what Christgau means by that.

There's still no quit in Mr Low ( and not much in the way of hair these days). He still tours as a solo artist and just last year contributed vocals to a Kate Bush album.

Trinomials: June Carter Cash

June Carter Cash (and Johnny Cash): Jackson


June Carter Cash’s success story actually began two years before she was even born. It was a hot day in August 1927 when two women and a man (A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle) appeared at the New York studio door of a big-time talent scout for Victor Records. To audition, they’d spent the entire day before driving an old Model A Ford down mountain roads from the small hamlet of Bristol on the Virginia/Tennessee state line. Three flat tires later, they’d “arrived” in the big city. Impressed by their emotion, rusticity, charm and soul, Victor Records launched their career. It wasn’t long before The Carter Family’s music was playing from radios across the U.S. As country music hadn’t even been named yet, Victor simply called its brand “Old-Time Melodies of the Sunny South.”            

Maybelle gave birth to June in 1929, and by 1939 she was appearing on the radio too, playing autoharp and guitar. In fact, all three of Maybelle’s children would sing together as an act. At the time, June didn’t really want to sing, and her mother wasn’t even sure if she could carry a tune. Maybelle told the ten-year-old, “If you’re gonna be on the world’s largest radio station with us, we’ll need some kind of miracle.” The dream materialized, and all the kids found parts on the show that always opened with the upbeat theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”    

The 2-disc album (linked above) comes with a hard cover CD book full of liner notes, historical perspectives, song credits and photographs. After the opening theme, we hear ten-year-old June Carter singing “Oh! Susannah” in 1939. The 1949 cut of “Root Hog or Die” includes her trademark “growl,” and her comic routines until 1948 as Aunt Polly might’ve even included buck-dancing. Onstage, she simply became “Little Junie Carter” when they came to the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.

Just from her tone and inflection, it's readily apparent that June was a good-time fun-loving gal who always kept on the sunny side of life. Although a true entertainer, her success was slow in coming in an era when female vocalists were more of a novelty in country music. June's various antics and hillbilly humor became part of her act presumably as a result of her own lack of self-confidence as a vocalist. After she and Carl Smith divorced in 1956, she studied acting in New York. In 1961, Johnny Cash invited Maybelle and the Carter Sisters to tour with him. June co-authored “Ring of Fire” with Johnny Cash. June and Johnny married in 1968. “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter” both became top 40 hits for them. They toured widely and had a highly-rated television show in the late 1960s and 70s.

June Carter Cash’s music developed with experience, maturity, comedic verve and dramatic aptitude. She also never forgot her mountain soul and roots. She put out a successful album in 1999 called “Press On.” Shortly after she finished recording the album “Wildwood Flower,” June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003. Check out the 2-CD compilation as a documentation of “her life in music.” Earl Scruggs once stated, “She was always full of energy and a really great show-gal.” And as Johnny Cash once said, “June’s work will live on and on.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Trinomials: Mary Lou Lord

Mary Lou Lord: I Figured You Out


Mary Lou Lord's rise to semi-fame in the Boston-based grunge scene of the mid-nineties never flagged as high as Juliana Hatfield or the Lemonheads, other-coast Kill Rock Stars labelmates Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists, or other of her performing peers from that era, but she's always been my favorite anti-folker, whose coverage of Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin finds periodic placement on my coverblog. This song is not technically a cover, but it is an Elliott Smith composition, one which he decided not to record himself; its bitter cynicism reflects the lyrical sensibility they shared, and her shattered innocence is perfect for the part, even as the strum and production call directly to his studio work.

Hers may nonetheless be a well-recognized name in the indie world, in no small part for collaborations with doomed musicians Kurt Cobain and Smith himself, for her inclusion on several mid-nineties covers albums paying tribute to John Lennon, Van Halen, and Saturday Morning Cartoons, and for the use of her Daniel Johnston cover in a Target ad campaign. But to me, this particular trinomial will always be the girl in the Park St. Station, her delicate busker's voice and gentle punk rocker's attitude echoing through the brick caverns as the trains rush through.

Trinomials: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: Desert Song

There might have been something in my subconscious that directed me towards my choice this week, but it wasn’t until I had gotten a start on this by ripping the song from the CD that the association hit me; I had already made my decision to bring you something from Mahvishnu John McLaughlin. You see, we are about a week away from the close of the academic year, and although I have a handful of his albums, I was converting track 4 from “School Days” to mp3 format.

School Days is Stanley Clarke’s fourth, a “solo” album that came out in 1976. Track 4 is called Desert Song. Here, we’ve got Stanley Clarke playing a stand-up bass and John McLaughlin (he’s known both by his two-name and three-name appellation) on acoustic guitar. The album (CD) credits list a collection of string personnel, so I’m not sure who it is playing with them. But the album is one of my all-time favorites, partly because it was the first time I had ever heard the innovative slap-style and fretless bass and partly because this was jazz that was funky.

The guitar work, since the focus is on the musician with the three names, is typical “Mahavishnu” from this period: mystic and Eastern. Clarke and McLaughlin complement each other well – in energy and speed. At about 3.20 into the song, you can hear McLaughlin take his solo. It sounds like his guitar is at once a Western and an Eastern instrument.

In the early 70s McLaughlin took Sri Chinmoy as his guru as well as adding the spiritual name given to him by Sri Chinmoy as part of his name.  “Maha” is a prefix that exists in several languages, including Turkish as well as Hindi, and it means “great”, ie: Great Vishnu. McLaughlin introduced Carlos Santana to Sri Chinmoy, whence he got the third name he, too, used for a number years in the 70s until he broke with the guru: “Devadip” Carlos Santana. In 1973, the two of them put out the album Love Devotion Surrender that shows the influence of Sri Chinmoy on their work.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Trinomials: William Elliott Whitmore

William Elliott Whitmore: One Man’s Shame

For some members of my family, November 12, 2006 is an almost legendary date. On that day, I took my then 16 year old son to a show at the Bowery Ballroom in lower Manhattan. He had been jealous of the fact that I had been to some great shows there, but they were all 18 and over shows, so he couldn’t come. I saw that the Bowery Ballroom was having a 16 and over show on that November night, a Sunday, featuring Lucero, a band from which I had heard maybe one or two songs, with two openers, William Elliott Whitmore and Rocky Votolato, about whom I was completely ignorant. But I got tickets and we went. It was an incredible show, notwithstanding that my wife, trying to display good parenting, called me and insisted that we leave early because it was a school night for my son, meaning that we missed Lucero’s encore. I’m pretty much over that. Really.

Since then, Lucero has become one of my (and my son’s) favorite bands, and Rocky Votolato has become one of his real favorites (he actually won Rocky’s guitar in a contest and has met him a couple of times at shows), but that night I was truly struck by William Elliott Whitmore.

Whitmore is a young guy who sounds like an old guy. He has a deep, weary voice that is accurately described by Allmusic as sounding “like the reincarnation of an old gospel preacher from the 1920s” and “the one Tom Waits has been after for years”. It is distinctive, memorable and, to me, irresistible. He is from, and still lives in, southeastern Iowa and often writes songs set in that area, steeped in death, sin and redemption. Generally, he performs with a banjo, that he often strums more like a guitar, or a guitar (that he also strums like a guitar). Percussion is supplied by his stamping feet or his hand hitting the banjo or guitar. I found his performance on that November night to be enthralling and am disappointed that I haven’t been able to see him again since.

I had trouble deciding what Whitmore song to pick, so first I decided that it would be a song from Song of the Blackbird, which was released a few months before the Bowery Ballroom show, and then this one jumped out at me. It has a feeling of dread and fear, speaks of death, faith and violence, and it is mesmerizing.