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Archive for March, 2009

What to do about that  insipid, heartless, watered down version of rock and roll that has taken over country music?

Not much I fear.

Marty Martel has written an essay on the survival of traditional country especially as it relates to the Grand Ole Opry and country radio. I guess a popular DJ at WSM has been sacked and the Opry itself has created ‘one hit wonder’ members who are part of the Nashville soft rock version of country. Martel’s essay was released through the Doug Davis’ County Music Classics email.

Hard to find any acts with a country music sensibility among today’s so called country music stars. Maybe an Emmy Lou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson sometimes have something going, but lets face it George Jones, Willie Nelson  and Merle Haggard are the last of the late golden age  of country music which could broadly be defined from 1945 to sometime in the mid to late 50’s.

And really Little Jimmy Dickens is the only surviving star that I know of from the real heart of that golden age when Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzel,  ruled the charts and concert stages. I know I have left out some names, but I’m just mentioning favorites and the first ones that come to mind.

 A real good definition of traditional country music or what is a traditional performer is hard to nail down. George Jones, for example, did quite a few pop sounding records in his career. Johnny Cash was pretty traditional but flirted with rock and pop in his early days. Not many remember, ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’.

Amplification was certainly part of traditional country, as were drums.

Finding a pure traditional country performer who is not bluegrass or a tribute artist is is pretty tough. You have to stretch the definition of traditional pretty thin to include even the alt country and so called purists who generally use a lot of amplification, drums and heavy rock beats.

I suppose traditional country could be defined as a form of folk music employing string instruments in simple musical forms which often feature a solo composer  singer who expresses heartfelt and sincere descriptions in love, religion, life and death,  and other philosophic concerns  and real life issues.

One of the difficulties I have in the attempting  to defend and protect traditional country is that in the case of this blogs subject, Hank Williams, a great deal of his influence on subsequent music history can be found, not in Nashville style country or so called traditional country, but in rock and roll.

Take the style, attitude, rhythms, and words of  Hank Williams’ songs such as ‘Mind Your own Business’, ‘Move it on Over’, ‘Honky Tonk Blues’, ‘Baby We’re Really In Love’,  and of course ‘Hey Good Lookin’  and trace their influence. Who would you find? Well, for starters, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and a host of other early rock stars.

Take Hank Williams solo ballads by the author or his alter ego Luke the Drifter, trace their influence and who would you find? James Taylor? John Denver? Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, a musician who refuses labels? Oh yea! Billy Joe Shaver too.

Sure Hank had a tremendous influence on more traditional country stars such as Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce, Stonewall Jackson, but if you want to look where Hank really lives, he lives in rock and roll.

The solitary lonely figure at the centre of a stage, projecting a soliloquy like singing recitation of the deepest feelings and thoughts of a character outside of himself was the creation of Hank Williams and survives today in all musical genres.   

The current project to record some Hank Williams’ lyrics is under the direction of Bob Dylan and Jack White. And fittingly so.

So as much as I sympathize with  those who bemoan the loss of traditional country music in the modern country music industry, I don’t see it accomplishing much. What we have to do is make people aware of great legacy of not only Hank Williams but a host of other country greats who have passed:Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters,  Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzel, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, Stonewall Jackson, Faron Young (a bit of a rocker in the Hank tradition) Patsy Cline, and we could go on and on.

Worrying about who’s on the Opry is a lost cause, and the Hall of Fame pretty much the same, and country radio.. If you wish to direct your attention in a worthwhile direction I would say the museums devoted to country and various artists which seem to do do a pretty good job.

Pop fans aren’t hearing too much Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee,  Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters either, so I guess it’s a universal problem.

I’m not expecting a new Hank or Lefty, Bing or Frank on the scene anytime soon.

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Both as a musician and through his memories, steel guitar player Don Helms served Hank Williams with distinction. The legendary voice of the Hank Williams sound died last August. On Sunday March 8, a tribute to Helms starring Ray Price will be held in Nashville.

 One of the cuts on the new ‘Hank Williams The Unreleased Recordings’ three CD set really shows, in my mind anyway, the importance of Don Helms to Hank Williams. In these radio shows, done off the cuff I think listeners will find the Helms contribution enhanced on some cuts, It certainly is on Hank’s cover of the famous country, pop and later rock classic  ‘Have I told You Lately That I love You’.

His solo on that cut is haunting, and the whole recording is really a duet between Hank and Don Helms. Listen to it again; it’s beautiful.

The story is told that the high steel sound was designed by Fred Rose, not only to give Hank a distinctive sound, as if he didn’t have that already! but also to make Hank’s records cut through the noise and stand out when played on jukeboxes in noisy bars, roadhouses,  and restaurants.

Don Helms’  musicianship took it well beyond that strategy.

Don Helms seemed from a distance anyway to have had a great sense of humor. At least it seems so from a quote I remember reading when he toured with Jett Williams. Having earlier toured with Hank Jr, Helms said, “I really  like playing with these Williams, I know all the songs!” Or something like that.

I also thought Helms tried to give a sense of reality to life with Hank Williams. I know he said the Hank Williams he read about in biographies didn’t resemble the Hank Williams he knew from his  days as a Drifting Cowboy. They used to go bowling for God’s sake! He said, “My one wish in life is that everybody who had written a book about Hank Williams had met him.”

In both the music and the memories Don Helms served Hank Williams honestly and well.

The link to info about the Sunday Tribute is here. 

Note: This link is no longer active.

http://www.donhelmstribute.org/

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In connection with my last post, I came across  the lyrics to a song about the death of Hank Williams released by Emmylou Harris. The song is from a 1990 album called ‘Brand New Dance’ which according to Amazon has been discontinued. However the album and song are available as MP3 downloads. Here are the lyrics. 

Rollin’ and Ramblin’ (The Death of Hank Williams) written by (Robin Williams/Linda Williams/Jerome Clark)

Folks in Nashville slammed the door
Said we don’t want you anymore
Find your own way down the road
Pack your fiddle and your guitar
Take a train or take a car
Find someone else to keep you from the cold

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

Oh, he always sang the blues
Like it was all he ever knew
He didn’t sing at all that night
He was pale and as he dozed
He didn’t know his time had closed
Slumped in the back seat to the right.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

So they send him on night train, South
Through the cities and the rural routes
Just one more place to go
Ah, the whistle sang the bluest note
Like it came from his own throat
Moanin’ sad and cryin’ low.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

I’ve always been an Emmylou Harris fan and my vinyl collection has a few of her great albums from the ‘Luxury Liner’ period.

Of course Emmylou had an early relationship with Gram Parsons the late tragic musical figure who headed up one of the greatest Country Music groups of all time, The Flying Burrito Brothers, who fulfilled the legacy of Hank Williams more than any other country artists I can think of right now. I have their double vinyl album from many years ago.

I don’t know anything about these songwriters, but the lyrics to this song pretty much capture the lonely, tragic, and yes  betrayed and abandoned last days of Hank Williams.

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