DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO MAKING OLD TIME MUSIC: A YEARNING FOR THE PAST, A NOD TO THE PRESENT
By Michael Goldberg
The ghost of Gram Parsons haunts us. Well, maybe his ghost doesn’t haunt you, but it certainly shadows two recent albums, Son Volt’s Honky Tonk, and the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell collaboration, Old Yellow Moon.
Gram Parsons made traditional county cool. In 1968 he was behind The Byrds’ right turn to country, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and his subsequent Flying Burrito Brothers albums, particularly The Gilded Palace of Sin, and two solo records define a sound that echoes right through to the present. Keith Richards famously palled around with Parsons long enough to blood-suck some of the young singer/songwriter’s country soul. ‘Honky Tonk Women’ wouldn’t have been written if not for Gram Parsons.
They say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but if, back in the late ‘60s, it was Gram Parsons leading that horse, well it was probably going to take a good long drink and come back for more. I was 15 in 1968 when I heard ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo.’ Before I put that album on, country music sucked. After I played it, wow!
Parsons brought a young, hip sensibility to the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and the Strangers, and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. He was a young punk in a Nudie suit, pot leaves embroidered on the front of his jacket, paying tribute even as he thumbed his nose at tradition. In ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man,’ the high sweet notes of a pedal steel behind him, Parsons criticized a country DJ he had encountered. “He’s the head of the Ku Klux Klan… Well he don’t like the young folks I know, He told me one night on his radio show.”
Gram Parsons was the young folks, he was one of us.
His fusion of a country sound with a rock sensibility became known as country-rock. After he left the Burrito Brothers he found Emmylou Harris playing folk music in a Washington, D.C. club, and hired her to sing on his first solo effort, GP, and in his new backup band. “I started out being a fanatical lover of folk music,” Harris told the New York Times recently. “Country music, even though I was exposed to it, I just thought that I couldn’t be bothered with it. I could not hear the subtlety in it; I couldn’t hear the poetry in it. I was a Joan Baez wannabe.
“But Gram, he heard something in my voice,” Harris continued. “He thought I could sing country music. I started as a harmony singer, that was his way to kind of sneakily turn me onto this extraordinary body of music, and in singing country music I really found the place that my voice was supposed to be. It also made me appreciate the joys of working with a band, which meant a drummer, which was anathema to folk singers. I can’t imagine that I would have gotten to the place I am artistically or even vocally, if it hadn’t been for Gram.”
Following Parsons death by an overdose in September 1973, Emmylou Harris began recording solo albums. For many of her post-Parsons country-rock albums Harris worked with producer Brian Ahern (who she married in 1977 and divorced in 1984); Texas songwriter Rodney Crowell was a member of her touring band and contributed a song, ‘Bluebird Wine,’ which was the opening track of Harris’ first country album, ‘Pieces of the Sky.’
Old Yellow Moon not only reunites Harris with Crowell ; the producer is Brian Ahern, and he nails the country sound that helped make some of us love Harris’ initial country-rock albums. James Burton, who played on both of Parsons’ solo albums and on Harris’ first five country albums, contributes guitar to the album opener, ‘Hanging Up My Heart.’ They have even rerecorded Crowell’s ‘Bluebird Wine.’
When Uncle Tupelo – led by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar showed up in the late ‘80s playing what became known as “alt-country,” those of us who’d been around when Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released knew we’d heard that movie before. While recording their debut, “No Depression,” the group recorded a version of the Burrito Brothers’ ‘Sin City,’ though it wasn’t included on the original version of the album (it’s a bonus track on the 2003 reissue).
“[The Burrito Bros.’] ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ was a real pivotal album when I first heart it,” Farrar said in an interview.
Tweedy and Farrar parted ways in the early ‘90s. Tweedy’s new band, Wilco, made one hardcore country-rock album, the wonderful A.M., before embarking on a journey of musical experimentation that included the controversial album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Farrar’s Son Volt continued to play country-rock, often grunging the guitars for their own version of alt-country.
Nearly 20 years later Son Volt has turned down the volume for it’s new album, Honky Tonk, a conscious attempt to move away from the ‘rock’ of past albums and work a purer Bakersfield-style country sound.
“I wanted to acknowledge and to pay homage to what I consider important, the Bakersfield guys, Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens, but also George Jones and Ray Price,” Farrar told St. Louis’ Riverfront Times. “That’s the kind of music I’ve always turned to, especially when touring, for inspiration. That music has always been important to Son Volt, from the first song on the first record, but with this record I really wanted to focus on that.”
Both Honky Tonk and Old Yellow Moon are beautiful albums, featuring outstanding vocals and memorable songs. In both cases, the artists recreate a sound from the past. And not only a sound. Most of the songs could easily have been recorded by ‘50s and ‘60s country artists (Harris and Crowell cover Roger Miller’s ‘Invitation to the Blues,’ which was the b-side of Ray Price’s 1958 hit, ‘City Lights’).
These are consciously retro albums; Farrar, Harris and Crowell have made a conscious decision to make an antiquated style of country music. They work within the musical structure of old school country. It makes for beautiful, often emotionally moving music, but occasionally as I’ve listened I’ve wondered what it would be like if they had paired songs dealing with more contemporary themes with the same music.
Surprisingly, it’s Steve Martin and Edie Brickell who with their new collaboration, Love Has Come For You, hint at how this can be done. Martin, of course, is best known as a movie star and a stand-up comic, but he’s been playing the banjo since high school, and has recorded several albums of bluegrass songs. In 1988 Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians released an album, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. It contained the hit, ‘What I Am,’ and launched her career. She’s recorded numerous albums since, and her songs have been featured in several films.
For Love Has Come For You, Martin didn’t want to make an anachronism. He ran into Edie Brickell at a party and asked if she would write lyrics to some of his new songs. One of the first she wrote, ‘When You Get To Ashville,’ starts like this:
When you get to Ashville,
Send me an e-mail
Tell me how you’re doin’
How it’s treatin’ you.
Martin told the New York Times, “I thought, ‘Oh! Good.’ We’re not writing old-fashioned pretend songs. We’re writing contemporary songs with sort of an old flavor. The banjo is evocative of something in the past, and these lyrics are evocative of something new.”
While all the songs on Love Has Come For You, aren’t as contemporary as that second line in ‘When You Get to Ashville,’ the album still shows that older musical styles can be repurposed to tell modern stories, and when that happens, we get to hear, as Martin said, ‘something new.’