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
Whoa, dudes, um, like, got a whole bunch of half-baked posts germinating, but can’t bring anything to completion. Maybe it’s like, y’know, something to do with like retrograde Saturn like moving away from opposition to my natal Sun whilst Uranus is like fixing to go stationary retrograde like five minutes shy of my natal Sun in a few months and like right before that like Jupiter is like conjunct both of them, which means, um, yeah, I’ve gotta stay totally grounded and centered, man. Like, uh, time to chillax to some chillwave and contemplate what style of ironic mustache I’ll grow.
Anyway, rendered in common English, I guess what I’m trying to say is that either this blog will burst with a meadow of psychedelically colored posts in the next week or two — and for those of you who know me, don’t worry; I’m utterly straightedge and committed to the clean and sober life, although my mind tends to invent its own weird little drugs — or else I’ll be that guy stumbling up 21st Street, mumbling and babbling to random strangers about Uranian energy and what it does to people it comes into direct contact with.
And for those of you in Sacramento who might be curious as to what happens when the transiting planet Uranus conjoins a person’s natal Sun, watch me, and artists John Stuart Berger and Skinner, and musician Josh Chesney, to see if there’s any effect on our work. I have no idea, really, but concerned astrology-minded friends have been e-mailing me certain articles to make sure I’m forewarned to stay grounded, and not go off the deep end this summer. If anything, though, I’ll just crank up the funny.
Cowabunga, baby. Let’s go trippin’. —Jackson Griffith
ps: Speaking of 21st Street, that new Indian restaurant Bombay Grill is open, and they’re open every night until 11. Haven’t tried their aloo samosas, benghan bharta, saag paneer, nan, etc., but 11 every night is a good sign, no?
Ever wish you could clone yourself into maybe three or four or five different versions, so you wouldn’t miss anything? Last night that magic number was at least four — five, if you count my occasional venturings into cocktail lounges frequented by flight attendants in the guise of Vladumb i Vladumbr, a semi-moronic double agent from the Slovenivakian Embassy in Fresno, which is a reasonably pointless place to site an embassy, but the premier of Slovenivakia — or maybe it’s Slovakivenia; these details are too easy to forget — a former minor functionary from the old Soviet Union’s Ministry of Medium-Sized Dogs by the name of Dopero Doperovich Plitplov, became convinced that the real capital of the United States was wherever freerepublic.com was located, so that’s why Vladumb i Vladumbr was working out of there, at a Clarion Inn near Highway 99, well outside a walking radius from any decent Chinese restaurant. But I digress.
Went out to see music last night. Would have liked to be in Brooklyn to hear my pal the great singer, songwriter and beverage expert Sport Murphy wow ’em with his brilliant music, and maybe some of that will show up online. Also wouldn’t have minded seeing Kevin Seconds play with 7Seconds in Berkeley. And, locally, JD Valerio was at Luna’s, and I’d promised him I would show up, but I know he’s gonna play Naked Lounge at 11th and H on Sunday, April 25 with David Watts Barton, who’s sitting mere yards from me in that other Naked Lounge at 15th and Q as I type this on a wet Sunday afternoon, so that’ll take care of seeing two people I really want to see live again, if I can make that show. And, of course, I will.
I’d wanted to stick around the Urban Hive at 20th and H to see Dusty Brown‘s DJ set, and I went by there early and hung out and talked a bit, but where I really wanted to be was Clubhouse 24 over on 24th Street just off J — first, because my pal Warren Bishop was playing with his trio the Onlymen (which usually is a foursome), and also because there were two acts on the bill that I’d been wanting to see: Musical Charis and Boulevard Park.
I’ve known Warren ever since I put an ad in the News & Review around 1991, looking for people to play music with, and a pal of his named Rich answered, and we got to talking, and he kept saying a musician buddy of his who’d moved to Orange County was moving back, and then their band would be getting under way. The buddy turned out to be Warren, and the band was called Mojo Filter, or at least it was later on. Dunno whatever happened to Rich, but I’ve gotten to know Warren over the years. I kinda recall his band the Onlymen were called the Holy Men or something, but a name like that can work against you unless you hire a few strippers to join you onstage from time to time. Which is what I’d do in that case, but again, I digress.
Last night Warren was joined by Kevin Gaffney on drums and, well, I forget who he told me his bass player was, but it wasn’t Larry Cox, who left the band. Warren plays the kind of music favored by white guys of a certain age who remember seeing the Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and got forever warped, and before you accuse me of being ageist, I’ll just say that it takes one to know one. Warren and I both were huge fans of NRBQ, this band that was kind of an amalgam of the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and Soupy Sales with maybe a little Buck Owens, or more accurately Don Rich, thrown in of Big Al was manning the Tele, and that sensibility comes out in his music.
By mid-set, about half the audience looked like Musical Charis, so it kinda blew my mind when Warren lauched into an original called “Hipster,” about, he later told me, a local poet and a performance artist; he seemed a little apologetic in reassuring the audience that the song was not about anyone in the room. My advice? Get in your face about it, and tell them that this is about every one of you little fuckers, and if you don’t like it, well, fuck you. But that’s just me, and Warren’s light years more diplomatic than I am. So there.
He also apologized for living in Citrus Heights, which has more pentecostal cranklabs than Midtown and Land Park combined, plus it has purple street signs, which would please The Artist Formerly Known As Unpronounceable Dingbat. Do I apologize for being from Stockton? Fuck no. The Onlymen closed with, well, a song about the first iteration of the True Love Coffeehouse closing, a Bic-lighter moment that’s called “Kicking The Walls Down” or something like that, and forgive me for being too lazy but I tried to look it up, I really did, but it’s that kind of a day and I need to keep typing and not get too bogged down with anything resembling, erm, accuracy.
Part of the reason I was there — and not sausaged into an ugly and ill-fitting thrift-store leisure suit in a dive bar laying horrible double-entendres served up with a craptacular Slavic accent on flight attendants and other intoxicated women — was because I wanted to really grasp the whole Musical Charis thing. I mean, they’ve been playing everywhere lately, and every couple of days it had seemed, and people, including Blvd Park’s Brian Ballentine, were raving to me about how great they were and I kept going, hmmm, I dunno, in that cynical way I can get sometimes when the contrarian impulse arises. The reason that recalcitrance kept coming up is that there’s something very cute about this young band, like they were the coffeehouse combo in an ABC Afterschool Special about how the kids at the local junior high were beginning to evade responsibility by getting all buzzed on smoked bananas.
Last night, the audience that showed up to pack the joint looked a lot like the band — frontman Blake Abbey, keyboard player Jessie Brune and four others, including the bass player from Blvd Park and a conga player, because the drummer had to work or something. Which is to say that it was a house full of attractive young people who looked like a circa-1975 Disney movie about hippies, where everyone was a bit too Partridge Family to look like the kind of lowborn bong-hitting scum I was losing brain cells with back in that particular day.
Musical Charis sings really well together, or Blake and Jessie have very nice harmonies. Their music is upbeat, positive and bright, like the pop-song equivalent to a series of brightly colored photographs of flowers, heavy on intense primary and secondary hues — no dark or gritty tertiary industrial palette here. The chords tend to be all major — the two or three basics like I > IV > V — which, to a chronic and unabashed Brian Wilson addict like me, can throw a wet Neptunian blanket on my perpetually Uranian craving for surprise.
Which is to say that I really didn’t hear anything that knocked me out, musically, in the way that their contemporaries Adrian Bourgeois or Ricky Berger tweak my eardrums, but I got that I really liked them anyway, and as performers, they really connect well with their audience. “This goes out to you beautiful people,” Blake told the crowd on several occasions — and not with oozing Las Vegas hackery, but what appeared to be authentic sincerity. Indeed, Blake broke down that invisible wall between band an audience several times by offering random tambourines to people. It’s always good to get that crowd involved, no?
They were digging it, young and some older Charis-heads, too. But, like I’d mentioned, I have trouble sometimes when the contents of my own head get in the way of me giving an act the tabula rasa to win me or lose me, but fortunately there’s this old quote attributed to British philosopher Herbert Spencer that appears at the end of an appendix on “spiritual experience” in a book I’ve gotten pretty familiar with over the past two decades, and it goes like this: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” Thank whatever deity for that, because it’s pulled my critical bacon out of the fire many times.
Which is to say that there are things I like very much about Musical Charis, and they’re a sweet bunch of kids, and I’m gonna miss them when Blake and Jessie move to Corpus Christi, Texas next month to record an album in a lighthouse. But the band is playing a final show at Harlow’s on J east of 27th, on Wednesday, April 28.
Where the Onlymen are concise and Musical Charis is forthright, Boulevard Park — or Blvd Park, dunno which is right — is shambolic. And where the Charis is church-socialesque, where everyone looks like they’re dressed for that crucial first day of school, Blvd Park is relatively skanky. First, the well-scrubbed Charis crowd bailed, and a new bunch of folks came in, after a giant hand-painted backdrop was squeezed through the door and installed in the window, behind the corner where the bands were playing. Unlike the contemporaries of my adult daughter that made up the Musical Charis audience, the ladies that followed Blvd Park in were a shade trashier, which perked my libido a notch. It was fun wondering how many of them might have “tramp stamp” tats under their clothes, and trying to calculate what the house percentage might be.
I’d hung out with Mr. Ballentine a few nights earlier at Old Ironsides, where he was playing with a stand-up bassist. Both of them were now onstage, along with, um, a snare drummer, two blonde backup singers, another guitarist, or maybe a keyboard player, a violinist and a trumpeter with a mute. Oh, and there was a white pit-bull terrier. Ballentine’s got a raspy voice, so it was like seeing Steve Earle backed by Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks after the time Dan dosed Herb Alpert with LSD and coaxed him onstage with Petey the dog from the Little Rascals. The music had a loose and thrumming quality, like a peyote-marinated Mexican jarocho banda.
By mid-set, I had a bad headache, though. It wasn’t the music; it was the onset of April allergies, coupled with barbeque fumes wafting in from a smoker outside — three years of not eating meat, and now instead of my mouth watering when I smell beef ribs and links, I get kind of janky. Plus I get claustrophobic when there are a lot of people in a small enclosure with me, and I get kinda crossed-up conditions when there are too many active drinkers around, because I’m kind of a club-soda enthusiast, so to speak. So, I went outside and hung out with Warren, who commented on the dog’s contribution to the Blvd Park sound by recounting a story about a bandmate who’d brought a live monitor lizard to a gig at a local club and thought it would make a nice decoration onstage. Which may be the dumbest thing I’ve heard this year, or at least the dumbest thing outside of everything coming out of Glenn Beck’s mouth — some real what-the-fuckery there.
Anyway, I thought this was going to be much more terribly cynical. I must be in a good mood. —Jackson Griffith