Sunday, July 3, 2011

The history of rock & roll, country music and me

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Yesterday began with the news that my friend Dan Durchholz has landed a new gig teaching the early history of rock & roll at a university in St. Louis County. My roots as a musician and music writer are all tangled up in his.

The next thing I did yesterday, after read my social media news, was to visit The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Its first display was a reel of three films of primitive rural music that pre-dated country music. One of those films showed Bascom Lamar Lunsford playing "Doggett's Gap" with a small group of musicians. I'm co-producing a boxed set of Bascom's recordings that will make his performance of this song available to the public for the first time.

With all this history of music stuff touching so personally upon me, on a weekend when our nation looks back to celebrate its own birth, perhaps I can be forgiven for continuing to experiences exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame and events of the day in Nashville from the Forrest Gumpesque perspective of my tiny cameos in them.

Uncle Elvis

In the center of the third floor of the museum, where the tour starts, is parked "Elvis Presley's Solid Gold Cadillac." The love of my eldest sister's life, Lori King, was a man named Mark Presley. Mark's grandfather was first cousins with Vernon Presley, Elvis' dad. I have in my personal museum a photograph of Mark as a child, standing on the steps of Graceland, when Elvis was alive, during a family visit to his Uncle Elvis.

I told this story to the group visiting the museum with me, which included by 8-year-old daughter. Leyla was very struck by this information. "You mean I'm related to Elvis?!" she exclaimed. "Yes, by marriage," I said. Technically, my sister never married Mark, though he never left her side during the long illness and death that interrupted their loving relationship.

Hank and Chicken Truck

Speaking of Cadillacs and premature death, I thought often about my early days as a musician, in the formative days of alternative country. Hank Williams is all over The Country Music Hall of Fame, as well he should be. I was writing about music when I was first starting scruffy country rock bands in St. Louis, and I was the first scribe to write about Brian Henneman, who has gone on to have a strong career with The Bottle Rockets.

Brian was fronting Chicken Truck when I stumbled into Cicero's Basement Bar to hear them. That band's memorable early tape LOUD MUSIC included a twisted homage to Hank Williams in which Brian growls, "I want to be drunk, stoned and famous and dead in the back of my own Cadillac." This refrain cycled helplessly through my brain my entire time in the museum.

Dizzy's big toe

I thought of Brian's songwriting partner and former high school basketball coach Scott Taylor at an adjacent exhibit, where you can listen to rare recordings at listening pods. One such rare recording was "Wabash Cannonball" recorded by baseball legend Dizzy Dean. The Chicken Truck guys backed Scott in an early side project that recorded a song called "Dizzy Dean". I remember Scott sharing that song with me, observing all sorts of protocols of co-conspirators, which I didn't understand.

"You know," Scott had said, "Dizzy Dean? Big Toe? I always liked how you referenced that." I had no idea what he was talking about. My first band had been Big Toe, but the name didn't reference anything but a big toe.

"The big toe is essential to balance," Scott had explained. "A line drive shattered Dizzy Dean's big toe. He kept pitching with his balance all disrupted, and it ruined his pitching arm." I think that was when I realized how songwriters learn to take credit for being much smarter than they really are.

Slim, svelte Garth

If there is an antithesis to Hank Williams and Chicken Truck, it would be the gerbil of country music stardom, Garth Brooks. Garth is featured in the museum on a highlight reel documenting country music on television. His career in music got started exactly at the same time as mine. He became an international star while my nose was buried in obscure comic books on the road to obscure gigs.

After one Enormous Richard gig in New York City, the pretty barmaid after-partying with us described our drummer, Matt Fuller, as looking like "a slim, svelte Garth Brooks". I remember this 20 years later because of her outrage and amazement that Garth Brooks had the No. 1 hit in the world yet not one member of our band had any idea who he was!

Maybelle's Gospel Ship

On the walls that sheltered the little theater where the country music on TV reel was playing they had hung historic musical instruments on pegs. There was Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5. It was our own "slim, svelte Garth Brooks," Matt Fuller, who learned Maybelle's licks and brought some of that old-time feeling into our bands Enormous Richard and Eleanor Roosevelt. We were playing the Carter Family song "Gospel Ship" at Cicero's in those early St. Louis years when Uncle Tupelo was playing their song "No Depression." In the case of Uncle Tupelo, the rest is history.

Jimmie's guitar at the depot

Next to Maybelle's Gibson hangs Jimmie Rodgers' Martin 00-18 guitar. I was strolling the exhibit with Elijah "Lij" Shaw, a partner in all of my bands and musical projects. After Eleanor Roosevelt burned out, we had stayed on the road as a field recording collective, Hoobellatoo. Hoobellatoo did some old-time music recordings at an old train depot in Marshall, North Carolina. Jimmie Rodgers had once left one of his other guitars behind at the depot, we were told, and it remained in a local private collection.

No credit

At that time in the exhibit, I received a call from a musician named Frank Heyer. Frank called to thank me for sending him the most recent Poetry Scores record which includes a piece of his music, Jack Ruby's America by David Clewell. However, he said (without being a jerk in any way), I made a mistake on his credits; he was playing keyboard, not fretless guitar. I told him we would "fix it in the reprint," the label's version of "fix it in the mix."

I told Lij how ironic it was, just as I was basking in my tiny roles in the history of music, to have pointed out a mistake I made on the last piece of music I produced. Lij said that was nothing. He reminded me of the come-back record he and I had produced for the jump blues legend Rosco Gordon. "My buddy Hags played bass on that record," Lij said." He was more excited than anybody. I forgot to credit him!"

Hotel California in Nashville
After a hotel pool swim, we finished our day at Lij's home in East Nashville. Out back he has built a commercial recording studio, The Toy Box. Lij throws opens its doors to Poetry Scores, the project that our bands and Hoobellatoo has evolved into. He also rents it out to other producers.

He called me down to the studio to hear some mixes a producer just did in his studio. The Toy Box is getting a name as a mix studio, in part, because Lij bought and installed the mother board on which many iconic Southern Californian recordings, including The Eagles' Hotel California, were mixed.

Paul Westerberg's Deer Tick

This project is the new record by the band Deer Tick. Lij wanted me to hear it because they are one of Paul Westerberg's favorite bands. Westerberg, of course, led The Replacements, which influenced all the rock musicians of our generation. Westerberg had even written a song for Deer Tick that appears on this album, "Mr. Cigarette," sung to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad". It's not the best song on what sounds like a great album.

"On this board, the brights can sound too bright," Lij remarked critically. "Listen to that high-hat. It's just like on Hotel California -- a little too hot."

Ghost World garage

I pulled a comic book off the shelf while we were listening. It was Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes, which the publisher had affixed with the sticker "Now a Major Motion Picture". That major motion picture was filmed, in large part, in a strip mall in Hollywood. That strip mall sits right across the street from a home owned by the sister of Matt Fuller, the "slim, svelte Garth Brooks" of our songwriting partnership. For many years, Matt has used his sister's garage to write songs and record worktapes. The records we have made for many years started in a garage that looks out over onto the strip mall where Ghost World was filmed.

Emmylou's giant poodle

I guess if you get old enough and stubbornly keep doing the same thing -- make music -- it gets to be like this, where everything you pick up bears a trace of something you have been a part of. Since this could go on forever, I'll end with an anecdote that ranks as unforgettable.

After the Deer Tick listening session, we went up the house and listened to Lij's mixes from Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo is a mjor music festival in Tennessee where Lij has been getting the contract to do live backstage recordings of the acts. The great producer Daniel Lanois was one of the acts this year. As we listened to Lij's recording and watched the video of Lij recording Lanois, I remembered a story Lij had told just that morning at breakfast.

We had breakfast in East Nashville, at a French-styled cafe called Marche that sits right across the street from Woodland Studios. Some twenty years ago, in his earliest days in Nashville, Lij had interned at Woodland. He was forbid to enter the studio recording rooms during sessions and assigned busywork instead.

Lanois brought in Emmylou Harris to make the Wrecking Ball record while Lij was there, and one piece of busywork he was assigned was to stop Emmylou's giant black poodle from escaping. Unfortunately, the dog did escape on Lij's watch.

Lij fled out the studio door and followed the giant poodle across Gallatin Road. The dog ran around Oprah Winfrey's former high school and darted into what was then a section of low-slung housing projects.

Fortunately for LIj and Emmylou Harris, the dog stopped to pinch a turd, and Lij tackled the giant poodle while it was taking a shit in the projects behind Oprah Winfrey's former high school. My carried and dragged that giant poodle out of the projects, past Oprah Winfrey's former high school, across across Gallatin Road and into Woodland Studio, where musical history was being made.