Saturday, August 25, 2012

Homecoming for the Queen of Country Rock

When Emmy Lou Harris comes to town, she brings all the traditional keys to a happy wedding…something old, something new, something borrowed and something bluesy.
On a recent summer night at Wolftrap Farm Park, Emmy Lou and John Prine filled the ampitheatre and lawns with fans who had grown up with the country music they helped define and popularize.

For Harris, the Washington area is a true homecoming as her father was stationed here while in the military and it is where she got her start in clubs and bars.
She told how her break came when some guy was looking for a singer to help him recreate the sound of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.

After hearing her sing at Clyde’s in Georgetown, he offered her a bus ticket and a spot playing rhythm guitar. That was how she met, “my dear friend Graham Parsons.”

The evening was a perfect blend of her own songs—both old and new—and country standards. Introducing “Making Believe,” she paid tribute to Kitty Wells who made it a hit two decades before that torch was passed to Harris. And she gave a nod to Billy Joe Shaver for “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” As she has done before with friends from The Seldom Scene, she brought out John Starling (“my favorite singer in the whole world”) to join her on “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”

What was new and impressive were Harris’ own compositions, from the mournful “Red Dirt Girl” (But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues/ When you got em/ You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom) to the moving “Ballad of Emmett Till” (I was just a black boy and never hurt no one) on her latest album, “Hard Bargain.” Unlike some of her contemporaries, Harris’ voice has lost none of its richness and when she soloes a chorus of “Aaaaahhh Aaaahhh Aaaahhh,” the sound in the night air is worth the price of admission.

Unlike the days when she traveled with Buddy Miller or had Daniel Lanois’ pulsating drumbeat sound, this year’s group of musicians is truly a backing band. For most of the evening, the spotlight was on Emmy Lou and her singing. One wonderful exception was when the Red Dirt Boys and the lady in charge put down their instruments and did an acapella version of “My Precious Children.” It gave you goose bumps.

The Queen can still bring it after all these years. Whether it was toasting “Two More Bottles of Wine,” rolling home on “Wheels” or steering “Luxury Liner” at warp speed, she proved she can rock whatever part of the country she’s playing.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Musical Oddities from Naptown to Londontown

Maybe it is the continuing heat wave in the dog days of August but there seem to more than the usual number of musical happenings that strike me as slightly off kiilter.

For starters, the elder statesman of American Rap, M.C. Hammer, is giving a free concert tonight at the Indiana State Fair. One hopes his drawing power will attract some paying customers who might have stayed home for fear of contact with flu-infected barrows and gilts. Still, it’s difficult to imagine young men and women skipping 4-H meetings to watch reruns of “Hammertime” on A&E. While his music has become what many would consider mainstream, my request tonight is “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em!”

Then of course there was the second musical spectacle of the summer from England. Last night’s closing ceremony was like an endless of loop of Super Bowl halftime shows that had the last day of the Olympics as an excuse for another orgy of dancers, waltzing extras, light shows, fireworks and even some singing. As a tribute to Britain’s musical heritage, it was a cavalcade of stars. As an Olympic event, it seemed comical every time there was an obligatory cutaway to participants dancing in the dark holding medals up to the camera. The disconnect from sports to spectacle reminded me of Robert Sherill’s great book title: “Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music.”

I suppose it was Britain’s turn to strut its stuff but it sure lacked the restraint and taste of the Queen’s Jubilee concert (where you could actually hear the lyrics) and seemed more like the Disneyfication of England’s Charttoppers. Annie Lennox in a gigantic ghost ship? Giant holograms of Freddie Mercury? The Spice Girls reuniting via London Cabs coated in electronic sequins? Fat Boy Slim spinning discs atop a huge inflatable octopus? Giant truck billboards of super models? What comes after “wretched excess?”

I guess Eric Idle, who can still poke holes in the pomposity by becoming a dud falling out of a cannon and leading a sing-a-long of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
And whenever anyone revived a Beatles song, it gave the set list some class.

I confess I gave up before The Who made it onstage, only to find out today from the internet that NBC delayed them until midnight so they could air a new sitcom and let local stations do the news. What can you expect from a network that missed chunks of live competitions (volleyball and the men’s basketball final) to air commercials?

A happier note was the music used during the equestrian dressage grand prix. One contestant used the music from Elton John’s Lion King. The gold medalists, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro performed to a wonderful British collection. It began with the theme from the “Great Escape,” followed by “Live and Let Die” and then segued into Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” which we commoners would recognize as the “Pomp and Circumstance” march from countless commencements. In between Elgar selections, there were bells rung from Big Ben and the fanfare that has become an Olympics theme.

Their winning “dance” may not have rocked you but it was hauntingly beautiful.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Dream Team's Songwriting Seminar

As someone who can’t sing or play a lick, I have always identified with songwriters because I do like to do the occasional scribble-scribble and can empathize with the difficulties of the process. Thus it was a real treat to come across this mini-seminar on writing following an Austin City Limits acoustic concert from last fall. The performers were a dream team of singer/songwriters that included: Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett. Here’s a rough transcript of the group interview in the dressing room.

How do you write? Do you have a method?

Guy Clark: I get a big eraser
Joe Ely: I chain my leg to a tree

Does it take a certain time, does it run in hot and cold spells?
What kind of inspiration do you need? Do you write about yourself? Do you write about anything?

Guy: You don’t believe you’re gonna get up and do it again
John Hiatt: Yeah
GC: It’s never gonna happen
JH: You can’t believe you ever did it before and the next one’s never gonna come.
GC: Yeah. It’s hard work
JH: And you have no…you’ve learned nothing from the last one
GC: All of that
JH: You don’t really know how to do it…

Joe Ely: And then you’re driving you know on Interstate 10 in Houston and this great song comes into your head and you don’t have a pencil or a pen and then by the time you get to the next exit you can’t remember the chorus.

Lyle Lovett: Writing songs is a mysterious, mysterious process and, you know, certainly listening to great songwriters, listening to their songs is …I think you have to have that feeling of wanting to try to say something and listening to great song writers’ songs always gives me that feeling.

GC: Course there’s a real tradiiton of storytelling in Texas, you know, bullshit.
(laughter). Its always been that way.
JH: And even just the guys…the campfire songs and all that rich tradition of cowboy songs and campfire tales and cowboy tales, that’s pretty deep too.

LL: And for me that story telling tradition in Texas music --Guy Clark is the embodiment of that. Listening to Guy Clark and listening to Townes Van Zandt that’s what made me want to write songs. (To Guy) Your sense of imagery and your use of metaphor…your songs are often described as literary but where, I mean your approach where do you get it?

GC: Well my parents were literate to say the least. As a yong person I grew up in a pre- television household and after dinner we would sit around and read poetry out loud or a book, prose, out loud. We’d just pass the book around and just read, the family.
And we were always encouraged in the direction of the arts and good literature.

I guess that’s where Guy came up with lines like these:

Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.