Finding my way back into country
One of my favorite things to do when no one is around is play and sing covers of old country songs. Sometimes I fantasize about gigging under the nom-de-twang of Orvis Tinney, me in a rhinestone-bejeweled Nudie-style suit, backed by a stellar combo of killer country musicians, launching into hit after hit after hit of pedal-steel and double fiddle-fueled goodness.
I grew up pretty conscious of country music, because all the grown-up white men, as in dads, in my part of California’s agrarian Central Valley listened to KRAK radio, the AM station out of Sacramento. Which is to say that Buck and Merle, along with Hank Sr. and George Jones and Patsy Cline and others, were part of our musical consciousness, like it or not. But by the mid-1970s, country wasn’t doing it for me, because so much of it had become twangless countrypolitan fodder, box wine and cold beer at a time I was thirsting for sour-mash whiskey.
I’d read a review somewhere about an album by some sheetmetal worker from Florida named Moe Bandy, on an indie label out of Atlanta called GRC, which was owned by a porn king named Michael Thevis and had landed a hit record with Sammy John’s cheesy hit “Chevy Van.” Bandy’s album cover pictured him scowling and holding the busted-off neck of a whiskey bottle, the remnants of which were smashed on the jukebox behind him, and the title got me, too: I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today, featuring the hit “Honky-Tonk Amnesia.” That was enough for me. And the music was great, too — 100-proof country music with metallic guitars and keening pedal steel, just like I remembered I liked before Nashville went all soft and pussyboy. Bandy cut a couple more great records for GRC, and then he signed with Columbia and did a bunch of dopey duets with Joe Stampley on Epic. But his GRC stuff renewed my faith in country music.
Another review by the same guy who turned me onto Bandy, I think it might have been Chet Flippo, hipped me to Out of Hand, the RCA Victor debut of Gary Stewart, another guy with a Florida connection. Stewart sang like a hillbilly Roy Orbison, and his music was out of this world. I couldn’t get enough of the single “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” still one of my all-time favorite country songs. Stewart went on to cut a bunch of fine two-fisted drinkin’ anthems for RCA, and then his demons got the best of him for a while, and then Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg signed him to their HighTone label for a comeback, and then Stewart came to a bad self-inflicted end at his Florida home. He’s still worth checking out, and you should if you’re not familiar with him. Writer Jimmy McDonough penned an excellent piece on Stewart, if you’d like to know more.
In 1977 I got hired at Tower Records in Stockton. We used to get free promotional copies from the labels, and most of the in-demand stuff got cherry-picked by the day shift, leaving the dregs, usually unknown acts on major labels like MCA, which we called “Musical Cemetery of America.” One night about a year later I took home a couple albums nobody wanted. The next day, after I’d mowed the lawn at my old house on Flora Street, I cracked a beer, twisted a doob, put on one of the albums, titled Honky Tonk Masquerade, flopped down on the couch, sparked the umbage, toked deeply, and then the music hit. What the fuck? I had no idea who this guy Joe Ely was, but every song just killed: “Cornbread Moon,” “Because of the Wind,” “Boxcars,” “Jericho,” “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” — and that was just side one. Side two had “West Texas Waltz” and this killer track with the line: “I keep my fingernails long so they click when I play the piano.” I was completely smitten, and I played the record for everybody I knew. Had no idea who the Flatlanders were, or Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Butch Hancock, either. But that late-afternoon listening session was a life-changer. Still love all those guys.
Years later, had to be 1985 or so, I was working for Tower Records’ Pulse Magazine, out of Tower Records’ advertising office on Howe Avenue in Sacramento. I’d taken over a column called “Spins” from Keith Cahoon, who had moved to Japan to run Tower’s Far East operation. One day I got a box with six or eight records in it from something called Tabb Rex Enterprises in L.A.; most of the records featured the kind neo-Nuggets psychedelic revival bands that were popular in L.A.’s so-called paisley underground scene. But one of them was a six-song EP with a black and white and blue cover: Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam. We listened to stuff all the time on the office turntable, and when something was good, everybody’s ears perked up. Yoakam’s debut, on a label called Oak Records, was such a record; I remember heating up the phone lines raving back and forth with store guys like Joe Medwick and Larry King from Southern California, who already were selling the shit out of it and were smitten. And my boss Mike Farrace, along with some of the other countryphiles in the office — Tower seemed to have a lot of hard-core, whiskey-drinking twang fans in its headquarters — were flipping out over it, too. It was a short time later that Warner Bros.’ newly revived Reprise label signed Yoakam and reissued the EP, fleshed out to a 10-song album.
The funniest thing was that like a day before I heard the Yoakam record, the New York Times ran an obituary of country music by critic Stephen Holden, commenting on how utterly dead in the water the genre was. And then, Dwight, along with Randy Travis and a bunch of other new guys hit. So, well, just when you think something is dead in the water, like country music, it gets revived by some total unknown. Seems it’s time again, I think.
And if nobody else gets ’round to it, maybe my pal Orvis Tinney will take a whack. —Jackson Griffith