Living That Honky-Tonk Dream

I made it up to Music Row

Lordy, don’t the wheels turn slow

Still, I wouldn’t trade a minute

I wouldn’t have it any other way

Just show me to the stage 

— Alan Jackson, “Chasing That Neon Rainbow” 

It’s a Sunday night and the party is in full-tilt on the rooftop of Tootsie’s. It’s early June, the humidity has broken for a brief spell and what feels like a Caribbean breeze blows through the streets. Two Australians come over and introduce themselves, country music enthusiasts from down under who are clearly enjoying their time in Mecca. A girl from Alabama is yelling “Roll Tide” and later reveals that her mom was a cheerleader at Bear Bryant’s funeral. This is still the Dirty South indeed. 

The band inside is belting out a few covers of ‘90s country. Songs like Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer,” Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile,” and John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night” hold sentimental charm as they dominated radio for this Gen Xer’s middle-school years, back when peace and prosperity reigned and Reba still had a perm. 

Like many locals, I tend to avoid the crowds of lower Broadway, with the exception of trips to Robert’s Western World, the crown jewel of the strip that shines like the star of Bethlehem for vintage country enthusiasts. But this night at Tootsie’s has turned into an unexpected celebration. It was never part of the night’s agenda, but here we are, giddy as thieves, somewhere over the neon rainbow. 

My partner-in-crime, a Nashville native, has a sudden revelation amid the din. “Even though it’s country music, it’s cool that Nashville’s identity is about art,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of places you can say that about. Yeah, it’s pretty cheesy sometimes but it makes people happy.” 

It’s certainly making us happy at the moment, and there is even talk of catching a redeye to Rio de Janeiro on the credit card later that night. 

“Twenty years from now do you think you’ll regret going to Rio tonight?” she asks. We have clearly been seduced by the devil’s music, and all its attendant fanfare. 

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Of course, Nashville has always been about more than twin fiddles and steel guitar. But country is the fulcrum of the town’s wider music scene. It created the infrastructure that made it possible for the rock, Americana and bluegrass scenes to flourish in recent years, and it is country music that still draws people the world over to this city.

These days it’s exceedingly difficult to make a living as a songwriter or musician. Yet the dreamers keep showing up to town, and reaching for the brass ring, despite a rising cost of living due in large part to the orgy of publicity Nashville has received in the national media. You have to be willing to waitress and work at coffee shops, or get a more traditional 9-to-5 office job in a cubicle. That is what it often takes.

In our Nashville songwriter’s guide, writer and musician Andrew Leahey navigates the nooks and crannies of the city’s songwriter scene. He takes us to The 5 Spot in East Nashville which hosts $2 Tuesdays as well as a monthly Country & Western series, where young musicians cover the greats of traditional country. He also checks in with Mike Grimes, owner and operator of The Basement, one of the town’s bestclubs, whichhosts New Faces night, a great launching pad for songwriters fresh off the boat. Wealso pays a visit Welcome To 1979, an all-analog recording studio that won’t break the bank and offers vinyl cutting services. Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage Guitars, which are almost like museums, have all your needs covered for vintage guitars. And lastly we take a long look at the history of the Ryman Auditorium, the old church that serves as the scene’s spiritual home. The venue is the Wailing Wall of traditional country and bluegrass, but it also holds a special place in the hearts of all who play there, regardless of genre.

Our cover subject Conor Oberst, whofinished his new album at Blackbird Studios here in Nashville, just graced the stage of the Ryman, where hometown heroesGillian Welch and David Rawlings join him onstage for an encore. Gil and Dave,who own Acony Records in East Nashville, then hopped down to Robert’s later that night and played with the house band. Just another night on lower Broadway.

Years ago, a friend from New Hampshire was in town visiting me and we ended up at Robert’s. “How can you ever be in a bad mood living here?” they asked.

“Well, I don’t do this every night,” I responded.

But, then again, we Nashvillians sort of do.

New York State of Mind

The first record I owned was a 45 of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” I played it repeatedly on my Fisher-Price turntable, a hideous looking orange and tan contraption that you could not break if you tried.

The year was 1984 and I was five years old, newly indoctrinated into the world of rock and roll. I also owned a copy of Weird “Al” Yankovic’s “Eat It,” preferring it to the Michael Jackson hit it parodied. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” another early favorite, once inspired an insurrection at the kitchen table, with my brothers and I hurling English peas at the powers that be.

To this day, “The Longest Time” is still my favorite Billy Joel song. The music you fall in love with in your youth becomes part of your DNA. It never really leaves you and you return to it again and again, in good times and bad. All the music you absorb as an adult is subconsciously held up to those early songs you love. And it’s those sounds you reach for when you’re be-bopping around in your car on a Friday afternoon in spring.

In our cover story, Billy Joel talks to veteran music journalist Alan Light about his early days, his passion for songwriting and his return to live performance – he’s currently working his way through a historic, once-a-month residency at Madison Square Garden. He reveals that he started out trying to make it as a songwriter, and never had designs on becoming a performer. A friend suggested he record his own album and use that as a way to market his songs. The rest is history.

Joel has not released an album of new songs in more than twenty years; 1993’s River Of Dreams remains his swan song. He continues to write, mostly in the form of symphonic music, but it’s usually just for him. He says he feels no desire to try to crank out any more pop hits. You have to respect him for that. So many musicians and athletes can’t let go, hooked on the fleeting success they had in their glory days (his Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2 remains one of the top 10 selling albums of all time.)

Joel is of course very much a product of New York. So naturally this is the perfect issue for us to explore the city’s current songwriting scene, as well as its storied music history. Even if you’re never visited the Big Apple, or have no desire to ever live there, you cannot help but construct your own fantasies about the place, largely formed from the myriad novels, songs and films that have taken place there.

And even as you become aware that Manhattan is now only a playground for the rich, having snuffed out its middle class, in your mind that fantasy of making a living there still exists. It is still an iridescent world where sparks can strike on any corner. It’s still the place where Bob Dylan launched his career in 1961, where the Ramones helped create punk rock in 1974, and countless others – from Paul Simon to Talking Heads to Norah Jones to Vampire Weekend – got their start.

 In our NYC survival guide, we interview the latest crop of songwriters about their efforts to make it as working musicians, and the everyday challenges they face. Writer (and musician) Nick Loss-Eaton tells us that the city is always changing, and that it’s not even the same place it was five years ago. We look at the best singer-songwriter clubs in the five boroughs, where to rent studio space, and tell you the best way to go about booking gigs. Good luck on your own New York journey. We can’t wait to hear about your success.

Delta Momma Blues

In New Orleans, jazz is king. This is, after all, the cradle of jazz itself, a town that was home to such titans of sound as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, as well as the lesser known Buddy Bolden, a turn-of-the-century cornetist who left no recordings to the world but is said to have invented jazz when he created the Big Four beat – a variation on the standard marching band beat which added a healthy dose of razzle-dazzle to the mix. 

Music tourists the world over flock to the Crescent City for its jazz and brass bands, whose sounds inhabit the French Quarter and  Frenchman Street, day and night. You can hear the old standards at Preservation Hall, ground zero for Dixieland jazz, or skip over to Frenchman in the Marigny district and take in some hot new band at The Spotted Cat. 

It’s an instrumental town, to be sure, a Music City of a different sort. Three chords and the truth has never been the mantra there. The poets of the town took to page or stage, not song. But that’s slowly starting to change, thanks to a new crop of songwriters who are writing original music that draws heavily off the city’s rich musical heritage. It’s modern music steeped in the old ways. 

It’s a more succulent version of country than we have in Nashville, one that is more cabaret than honky-tonk. The distance between vintage country and New Orleans blues has never been that great. After all, it was Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a New Orleans-bred blues musician, who mentored Hank Williams in Georgiana, Alabama, and taught him to play “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” a tune first associated with Buddy Bolden’s band. 

Hurray For The Riff Raff leads this charge of young guns in New Orleans. The group is the project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native who left home as a teen and hopped trains as she travelled across the country, finally settling in the Crescent City years later. She cut her teeth busking in the French Quarter with several rag-tag music ensembles, starting out on Decatur Street and then graduating to the more esteemed corners of Royal, where the bigger dogs play. 

While logging time as a street performer, Segarra grew steadily as an artist, soaking up various styles of American music, as well as the lessons and wisdom of her musical peers. Street performance is crucial to the city’s musical lifeblood. Unlike other American cities, busking in New Orleans is not considered a step up from panhandling. It is an art form, a test of endurance, a feat of entrepreneurial skill. It’s a great education for any musician, where one can expand their musical palette and, if good enough, can hustle up enough dough for food and rent. 

Long-time New Orleans music writer Alex Rawls tells the story of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s rise and looks at Segarra’s songwriting approach. Her writing is steeped in tradition but, like Woody Guthrie and a young Bob Dylan, it takes on the topics of the day. She writes about Trayvon Martin, pens murder ballads from a feminist perspective, and tells stories about her life on the road and growing up in the Bronx’s Puerto Rican community. She connects the ghosts of old-timey American music with the Twittersphere. She is a troubadour with a smartphone.

 We also look at the singer-songwriter scene in New Orleans and the new roots-music clubs cropping up in the Bywater and Carrollton neighborhoods. And we talk to artists like Luke Winslow-King, a Michigan transplant signed to Bloodshot Records whose tunes sound like they were shot out of your great-grandfather’s Victrola. New Orleans native Andrew Duhon, whose most recent album The Moorings received a Grammy nomination, tells us about his experience carving out a career as a songwriter, one who plays regularly in New Orleans but also tours a great deal. 

Unlike some music cities, New Orleans is a town where a songwriter can develop on their own, away from the daily pressure of music business insiders and trend-setters. “You can get out of the machine [in New Orleans],” says Kristin Diable, a songwriter who moved to New Orleans from New York a few years ago, “or go right back into the machine.” For many artists, it’s the best of both worlds.

Permanent Radio

Editor’s note for January/February 2014 issue.

Brian Eno famously said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The death of Lou Reed – the Velvets co-founder and solo artist who graced the cover of our Legends issue back in 2008 – has inspired countless tributes in recent weeks. Clearly, his influence extends well beyond what his sales figures might suggest.

In this issue, Reed tells Paul Zollo that his songs were beamed in from what he called his “permanent radio,” a non-stop barrage of music playing in his head. These sounds, both chaotic and tuneful, were set to Reed’s bare-bones street poetry, which told stories of characters living on the dirty boulevards of New York. Reed’s music crumbled walls, literally. Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who later became president, once told Reed that his music helped pave the way for his presidency and the dismantling of communism in Czechoslovakia. How?

In the late ’60s, Havel smuggled one of the early Velvet albums back into his country. It began making the rounds through Prague’s underground arts scene, eventually landing in the hands of the psych-folk band Plastic People of the Universe, which fell hard for the Velvets and began taking its musical and ethical cues from them. The government eventually banned the Plastics from performing in public, and several of its members ended up jailed for subversion, an act that led to the publication of Charter 77 – a declaration of human rights published in the mid-’70s that was authored mostly by Havel. When the Communist government resigned from power, in ’89, the event was dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Not a bad legacy for a man who said he wrote songs simply for fun, because “he got a major-league kick out of it.”           

Reed once interviewed Havel during his presidency and asked him if art had the ability to change things. Havell said ‘No,’ but countered that it could change people. And it was up to people to take it from there.


* * * *


Uncle Tupelo is another band whose true legacy can only be measured by the depth of its influence. The songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would release four albums over its career and split in 1994, never really graduating beyond the world of small clubs and college radio. But the group’s potent blend of vintage country and folk – married with the energy of hardcore punk – launched an entire movement and spawned a host of flannel-clad imitators. So much of what is now called Americana – middle-class indie music with strong folk roots – seems like it can traced back to Uncle Tupelo.

In our article, Stephen Deusner talks to Jay Farrar – one of the most inspired and idiosyncratic lyricists of the last quarter century – about the band’s newly reissued debut record, No Depression. Deusner paints a grim picture of Belleville, Illinois, the Rust Belt town that birthed this pre-Internet band of young twentysomethings, who were desperate to leave a place decimated by closed-up shops and factories. This urgency to fleeinforms every track on No Depression. Farrar and Tweedy would eventually get out. After the band’s split, Farrar went on to form Son Volt and Tweedy would start Wilco. You know the rest.

We also check in with Jimmy Webb, now the chairman of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, who authored such classics as “Wichita Lineman” and “The Highwayman.” And for our cover story, Elvis Costello talks with Alan Light about his new album, Wake Up Ghost, a stellar collaboration with famed hip-hop band The Roots that finds the Englishman pushing his songs into new frontiers.

 

Different Days

Editor’s note for Sept/Oct 2013 issue of American Songwriter.

 

Three years ago I saw Jason Isbell perform aboard the deck of a Carnival cruise ship. He played one muggy evening just as our ship made the turn around the northwest tip of Cuba, on its way to Grand Cayman island. The turnout for that night’s show was weak. Maybe five or six people on deck. I watched with two American Songwriter colleagues and a central Florida version of Snooki from Jersey Shore.

Isbell did not seem to be enjoying himself. At one point during his set, he clamored for a drink, so we brought him a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. He then launched into “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days and said the song was about his ex-wife. He followed that with the amped-up “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest.  If you said “lonesome” was a theme that night, you would not be wrong.

Isbell and his band the 400 Unit were one of a dozen or so acts playing the “Sailing Southern Ground cruise,” a four-day floating music festival put together by the Zac Brown Band. This quixotic, maritime voyage took us from Tampa to Grand Cayman and back over Labor Day weekend in 2010. American Songwriter pulled duty as the media sponsor.

By day three AS had come to know the pangs of sea life. Snookies multiplied like Gremlins in the oversized hot tubs. Midnight buffet raids lost their magic. Guitar solos began to sound like caterwauls. One night we lost all grip on reality and conducted a series of on-camera interviews with hapless cruise-goers that we called “Experiments In Journalism.” Those videos have since been deleted from all recording devices.

Isbell’s performances that week on the ship – I think we caught three or four – proved to be our only relief, and they would have been enough had we only heard “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.”

The former Drive-By Trucker’s career has come far since that week on the Inspiration. His new album, Southeastern, has been met with near-universal acclaim. As a friend put it, “it just makes all other records look bad.” And as this issue goes to press, Isbell is about to play a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music.

By Isbell’s account, his personal life seems to be at an all-time high, thanks in large part to a recent marriage and newfound sobriety. Southeastern documents – with a poet’s eye and without a trace of maudlin sap – his comeback story. It is not a confessional album per se. Themes of loss and redemption are woven into a larger tale, featuring a mosaic of characters that include killers on the run and cancer victims. There is a multi-dimensional quality to the writing that other songwriting “legends” would stumble in vain to capture.

I met the album’s producer, Dave Cobb, at a party recently and said closing track “Relatively Easy” was my personal favorite. He was surprised. “Really? That was the first song we cut. And those usually don’t make the album.”

The speaker in “Relatively Easy” recounts the suicide of a close friend, his own personal breakdown, and then curiously ponders the life of a stranger he passes in the street, wondering whether this man is alone or in love. He punctuates all this by telling his girl that “…  compared to people on a global scale / Our kind has had it relatively easy / Here with you, there’s always something to look forward to / My angry heart beats relatively easy.”

It’s a sentiment worth remembering. 

 

Dale Murphy, Chief Knockahoma, and The Trail of Tears

I learned to lose early in life.

I have the Atlanta Braves to thank for that. 

I grew up in the 1980s in the wilds of south Alabama. The Braves were the only professional team anywhere near there. They were my team, and my devotion to them was unconditional. Their games were broadcast on TBS everyday during the baseball season, usually at 6:05 p.m. CST, right after the combo-punch of the Brady Bunch and the Andy Griffith show. You could say I pledged allegiance to Chief Knockahoma, the Braves mascot who lived in a teepee out in the right field bleachers.

I watched most of the games on TV from 1985 through 1990. During those years they either finished in last or second-to-last place in the National League West. They stunk like Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning in August. All these years later I wonder about the psychic toll of those beatings, which came day after day, year after year, from April ‘til September.

My hero was Dale Murphy, the Mormon golden boy from Portland. He played left-field when I first became a fan and they switched him to right-field a few years later. He’d won the MVP in 1982 and 1983. The numbers started falling a little bit after that but he still managed to hit 30 or more home runs on average for the next couple years.

I wore his jersey around the house – he was No. 3 – with my own last name stitched across the top. I had all his baseball cards, including his rookie card from 1978, when he was drafted in the first round as a catcher.

I tried to emulate Murphy’s style of play on the diamonds of the YMCA during the formidable coach-pitch years. Murph had a habit of slinging the bat frequently after a strike out. I used to let the bat fly myself in this fashion and one day walloped my brother in the head while I was making him retrieve balls in the backyard. My mom was watching through the window that afternoon as she did the dishes and saw the incident unfold. I recall that she came running out of the house, screaming, “What have you done?” as my poor brother just lay there, half-conscious and sprawled on the St. Augustine grass.

If Murphy was the Braves captain during those years, then Bob Horner was the first mate. He was a slightly chubby first baseman with blonde jerry curl locks who eventually ended his career in Japan. As my middle brother had blond hair he adopted the character of Horner during our battles on the sandlot. I still remember the time Horner hit four home runs in one game against the Expos, becoming the fourth player in MLB history to accomplish such a feat. I got to meet Bob at an autograph session at JC Penney’s one summer day in Panama City Beach, Florida, and he signed my Bob Horner special edition Sports Illustrated poster. It was rad.

My littlest brother was too small to wear a regular jersey so we dressed him in Braves pajamas for a few years. We assigned him the persona of Chris Chambliss, a used-up overweight bench warmer with a somewhat creepy mustache. Sorry about that. You deserved better.

Every summer, usually in August, our family made its pilgrimage to mecca, or should I say Atlanta Fulton County stadium, an uninspiring edifice built in the ‘60s that sat right off the interstate. We always sat in the left field bleachers. Attendance was dismal during those years so we basically had the entire section to ourselves. We wore our Braves jerseys, made signs in hopes of getting on TV, and took our gloves with the dream of catching a home run ball.

I probably went to eight or ten games during those five years and I doubt if the Braves won two of those. Shortstop Raphael Ramiriez would invariably make two or three errors, catcher Bruce Benedict would strike out four or five times, and bearded hurler Gene Garber would usually cough up three or four home runs. But I always believed the Bravos would come out on top, and that Murph would homer, if only because I was there.

There Was A Time

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Bucky Bangs was a professional songwriter on Music Row. Though usually destitute, he once enjoyed a steady gig playing Spanish guitar at a low-rent bar on Nolensville Pike. He made enough to cover room and board, but not much else. Then he met Walter “Cig” Stowman, songwriter extraordinaire. Together they entered a Nashville studio in ‘75 to cut the record they thought would melt every needle that touched it. Except they hit the rotgut and never cut a track.

The years passed and Reaganomics proved detrimental to our hero. Bucky, in fact, was a living monument to the failure of the trickle-down theory, spending most of those years in rural Alabama, quaffing bathtub gin with Silas Bankhead somewhere on top of Lookout Mountain. Darkness washed over Bucky body and soul. Had he been asked to play a “G” chord then he could not have.

Last week, a group country music historians unearthed the epistolary correspondence between Bucky and Stowman, conducted during the summer of  2006. Here are two of the letters:

 

August 7, 2007 

Dear Cig,

It’s been about thirty years since we last talked. If my name doesn’t ring any bells, maybe you’ll remember me as the former roadie for Johnny Paycheck, back in what musicologists now refer to as his “lost years.”

At any rate, I was in Nashville this past weekend visiting an old friend. On Saturday night, we hitched a ride to the Springwater Supper Club, where I ran into our old friend, Mr. Stevens. I saw him standing in the corner when I first entered. He was wearing biker shorts and a blue fedora, pumping a fistful of quarters into an old nickelodeon. It seems our friend Stevens has acquired a strong taste for the early work of Newton-John in his old age. Fuck it. Nobody goes there for the tunes anyway.

I ordered a beer and a shot and then approached him. He didn’t recognize me and just stared at my mug like a man who had just undergone a lobotomy. Once I mentioned you and Paycheck, well ….

Our boy does not look good. But we ended up talking all night. He mostly rattled on about you and that ill-fated trip ya’ll took in the middle of the Watergate hearings. Although he hasn’t forgiven you for the damage it caused – his lockjaw has gotten progressively worse – he’s managed to come to terms with it. He still knows that he is the same man that Billy Sherrill once called the “best damn thing in the business.”

But enough of that. The reason I’m writing is that Stevens wants you to sing harmony on one of his new tracks, “Osama ‘Yo Mama.” It’s the revised version. The record company refuses to put the original on the album as it did not accurately predict the hunt for bin Laden.

That’s all the new I have about Stevens. Though later that night a gaggle of Japanese tourists entered the bar and played “It’s All Beautiful” on the box. Upon hearing the song, Stevens broke down and wept, saying: “It ain’t so, it just ain’t so.”

So, Cig, I ask you to come to Music City and cut that song. The time has come to bring the boys back home.

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Dear Bucky,

First off I’ll tell you what I remember. I remember you owing me fifty bucks. Second off there ain’t no way in hell I’m crossing the Red River for Stevens’ sorry ass. Crying all the way to Bakersfield Jesus Christ I had to dope him just to get a little shut eye. Said the rocks were gittin him. Hell I don’t know. And as far as that lockjaw goes well I guess I might have been a little too juiced up and not thinking right but it damn sure was a good idea at the time. Hey, he made a go of it didn’t he and made some pretty good scratch too off that crazy talk he picked up on the trip so what the hell’s his problem.

Hell I’ve got problems. Just got out. Did eleven months and twenty-nine days on a three-year stretch. Had to work the chow line for my old man up in Abilene. Probation and all. I swear to god that’s the last time. I’ll never swing a hammer or scrape another house or dig another hole and they can come get me if they want but I’m a man of the stage by god. He wanted me to show up at 8 every day. So I said screw it and told him to shove it and that was that. Just made it into San Marcos. Hitched a ride with some Mexicans headin down to San Antone. Rode in the bed drinkin beer with the littlest one the whole way. Damn near got myself thrown back in the cooler in Pontotoc for tossing the bottles at signs and that old trooper rolled up on us and I pulled some name out of my ass and told him I was Brian Hunter and was sure sorry and was just passing through and by god he was giving me the evil eye the whole time cause I think he recognized me but I didn’t’ have no license on me or nothing so there was nothing he could do.

Speakin of I sure could use a place to cool off for a little while. Since they’re gonna be on me pretty soon around here Old Virginny would be just the place to kick back for a while until it all dies down. If you old lady’s still pissed at me just tell her where she can stick it cause she’s just lucky to get to put up with the Texas legend himself for a little while. Hell I might even get the band back together while I’m up there and let you in on it seeing how my old tub thumper won’t be out for another four years for bustin up his old lady. I can see it all in my mind right now. All the town will be talking about how Cig Stowman and Poco Loco is back again at the Touch Of Class Lounge with Bucky Bangs on bass. Just let me get up enough feed to get to Richmond and I’ll be seeing you sooner than you can sing “Just Give Her The Whiskey.” I’ve gotta stop off and settle a little score with a slicky haired sparkle suit wearing old boy up in Nashville and I think you know who I mean. Until then keep that Lonestar cold and the dance floor hot.

 Cig

Back To Skoal: A Tribute

 
Before cigarettes, there was chew, or “chaw,” as it is known in some parts of the Deep South.

Most of us got our start with chew. It was our archway to the great kingdom of tobacco. In our early pubescence we came to know the wild ecstasies the leaves of North Carolina and Virginia could provide, contained within the perfect circle of a little tin can.

Back then, we all had the same supplier, in the form of Billy Whittaker. Every Monday, Billy walked into the Big B Drug Store on Old Shell Road and stuffed a whole galaxy of chewing tobacco into the front pouch of his red L.L. Bean anorak. He only swiped certain brands. He knew what his customers wanted: Beech Nut Original, Levi-Garrett, Red Man Original, Red Man Golden Blend, and Beech Nut Wintergreen. If you knew the man with the plan he would take care of you. This was back in the early ’90s, mind you, during the glory days of Joe Camel, when stores left tobacco out on the floor so as to encourage stealing among the delinquent. Even so, Whittaker was a very talented thief and never so much as got questioned.

Levi Garrett was the most popular brand for seventh-graders. It was mild, large-leafed, boasted a good, salty flavor, and did not deliver so much nicotine as to make one sick. It also came in a handsome-looking pouch. You felt like a rugged individual when you chewed Levi.

Skoal bandits (either mint or wintergreen flavors) were also popular. They came in little brown pouches and sported the really cool bandit logo on the can. They delivered very little juice so you would really have to work the pouch around in your mouth if you wanted to get the full effect. The more rebellious among us stuffed four or five pouches in at once. It became something of a competition to see how many pouches one could hold. There was also a brand of snuff called Hawken which “tasted like candy” and registered low on the nicotine meter. The logo featured two interlocking pistols and looked pretty cool. But let’s face it, Hawken was for wimps.

As a baseball player, you were around smokeless tobacco constantly. One teammate from Little League (or Dixie Youth League, as it was known in Mobile) used to pack Skoal Wintergreen in a Bubbletape container and bring it to practice. He was the Dixie Youth version of Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” character from the movie Major League. The boy could throw smoke from 46 feet. And everyone knows that a fresh dip on the mound adds roughly five extra mph to an eleven year old’s fastball.

Once you got to JV baseball, the abuse became widespread. Players could get ejected from a game if an ump caught you dipping, though outfielders were usually safe if they wanted to enjoy one in the late innings. And you often needed that dip to get you through a 13-inning game out in the wilds of Bayou La Batre, when it’s 10:30 at night on a Tuesday and the whole town smells like dead fish and you still had that problem set from Algebra 1 to finish.

* * * * *

During high school, a new locker room was built for the varsity teams. The new pad was nice, a shangri-la of a place that was a major upgrade from the old petri dish we used to dress in.  Bigger lockers, for one. And if a high-school bully wanted to lock a middle schooler into one of the lockers, well, at least the victim could breathe and had room to move around for the 47-minute class period.

The new locker room was so nice that it became a hang-out lounge for the hard-core dippers (not unlike the Hookah bars of the Middle Eastern sort). This band of hardballers indugled in Kodiak Wintergreen, the strongest stuff on the market and rumored to be cut with fiberglass and god knows what else. These rebels were so brazen that they quit using cups as repositories and began spitting on our bright-shining linoleum floor. Smokeless tobacco had obliterated their sense of judgment, as well as their gum-lines. They were soon discovered, and two of the trespassers got sentenced to fifteen years of detention. No word on whether they still dip.

Stuff That Works

For an old Southern town, Nashville surely doesn’t feel old. Unlike other spots in Dixie – New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond – you don’t feel a strong sense of history walking Music City’s streets. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. For one, “Nash Vegas” has an entrepreneurial pulse that other Southern cities lack. Here, the health care sector booms, hi-rise condos sprout on every other corner, and a new convention center squats in the middle of downtown like a spaceship.

But despite all the glitz, there is a real history here that still breathes, in the form of our songwriting heritage. And the best of Nashville’s writers are versed in it.

Many AS readers dream of moving to Nashville and jump-starting their career as a songwriter. I’ve met several who, after spending a little time in Music City, were so moved by the spirit of the place – and that sense of musical history – that they quit their desk jobs back home and put down stakes here, often with spouse and kids in tow. Of course, it’s not easy to make it as a musician; the financial rewards are usually minimal. Leonard Cohen, whose song “Bird On The Wire” we break down in this issue, made his pilgrimage to Nashville in the mid-’60s with hopes of furthering his music career. I guess he did all right.

Guy Clark, who is back with a new album this month, is a crucial part of Nashville’s songwriting history. Since the release of his debut record Old No. 1, he has produced a body of work that remains immune to any trends. It’s “stuff that works,” to borrow one of his phrases. If you haven’t seen it, check out the movie Heartworn Highways, a documentary shot in Nashville in the mid-‘70s, and you’ll see that, even his 30s, Clark was a master craftsman and something of an old soul.

When I visited him in his workshop two years ago, he told me that he has a high yardstick when it comes to writing. But the man who penned “That Old Time Feeling” is not overly sanctimonious about the process. “It’s not brain surgery,” he said. “They’re just songs. They’re supposed to be fun.”

Throughout his life, the Texas native has also been a gracious teacher. In this issue, the novelist Alice Randall recounts the time she spent with Clark in the mid-’80s, when she was hell bent on making it as a songwriter. Randall also tells a great story of a guitar pull she witnessed involving her mentor and Garth Brooks, an event that she describes as a “clash of two very different kinds of titan.”

Co-writing a song with Clark is a rite of passage that a only a few lucky young songwriters in town can lay claim to. A young artist named Drake White played a few songs at our office last month and then gushed about a recent writing session he’d had with the old bard. And Ashley Monroe told us about writing the title track to her new album with Clark. “After everything I played him he would just go, ‘Hmm,’” she said. “I would get real nervous and then I would play something else. And he would go, ‘Hmm’ … [then] I told him my life story … I was telling him every detail of everything I’d been through. And I go, ‘But look at me, I came out like a rose.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why don’t we just write that?’ ‘Good idea, Guy Clark. Why don’t’ we just write the truth.’ And we did.”

So it isn’t brain surgery, after all.

State Of The Union

Country music is not known for courting controversy. It is, for the most part, an apolitical music. But when a popular country artist dips their toe in political waters, the move usually turns heads, if only because the feat’s so rare. Country artists shy away from hot-button issues for commercial reasons, for the most part. Just look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks: the once-popular band signed its own death warrant – at least career-wise – when lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush and the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion, back in 2003. Country radio black-balled the next Dixie Chicks album, 2006’s Taking The Long Way, which proved to be their last as a group.

Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee,” released in 1969, is still a song that is up for debate. The speaker in the tune represents Nixon’s “silent majority” and stands up for conservative values in the face of ’60s flower power, preferring not to “take his trips on LSD,” and opting for “manly footwear” over “beads and Roman sandals.” Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill,” a tune about birth control, got people talking despite being banned on most of country radio. And Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue” (which originally was intended to be heard only by a military audience) certainly took a political stand in the wake of September 11th, and remains one of the more polarizing songs of any genre during the last decade.
Brad Paisley’s new tune Accidental Racist” (featuring LL Cool J) has triggered a discussion on race, one that has ricocheted far beyond country music’s usual chat rooms. Some critics have praised Paisley for simply addressing the issue, while others drubbed him for what they deemed to be a clumsy handling of an impossibly complex issue, using symbols like “doo rag and red flag,” “gold chains and iron chains,” to make his point.

Though not an overtly political singer, Kacey Musgraves has made quite a splash in country music with her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. Musgraves’ songs document the pitfalls and trappings of small-town life, and address topics like drug use and homosexuality. She has garnered some far-flung fans in the process, including gossip blogger Perez Hilton, and yet she’ll be opening for Kenny Chesney this summer, playing to stadium-sized arenas all across the country. In our feature story on Musgraves, songwriter Shane McAnally says that his experience working with Kacey was unique in that her first goal was not commercial success, which tells you everything you need to know about the world of pop country.

Ashley Monroe is another alterna-queen of country whose album Like A Rose is one of the year’s best offerings. A member of the group Pistol Annies, Monroe has written and worked with artists across a variety of genres, including Guy Clark, Trent Dabbs and the band Train. Like A Rose is an honest, fun, stripped-down semi-autobiographical record. Released on Warner Nashville, a mainstream country label, Monroe’s album has yet to see any rotation on country radio, but has been widely embraced by Americana and rock circles.

One of the best type of country songs is the duet, which reached glorious heights with George and Tammy, and Conway and Loretta. Our cover subjects for this issue, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, make a nice pairing on Old Yellow Moon, an album that has taken them half a lifetime to make. Rodney, who is one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters, got his start playing in Emmy’s Hot Band back in the ‘70s, when Harris launched a solo career after the death of Gram Parsons, the man responsible for turning the former folk singer on to country music. Their album features four new Rodney-penned tracks as well as some older numbers. You can’t distinguish the old songs from the new ones on this album, which is a good thing. In its purest form, country music, like baseball, can exist outside of time.