Monday, May 24, 2010

Part Three: Coming Home with Country Music

Part Three: Coming Home with Country Music

New Orleans, 1978

On a surprisingly warm winter evening in New Orleans during that rather unfortunate period of American history known as the Carter Administration, a 20-piece band composed of killer brass musicians with serious chops and a dynamite rhythm section played various songs by Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Chuck Mangione, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and other popular bands of the 1970s. The party was a whirlwind of plaid brown suits, huge lapels, sideburns, and feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style hair, and was crammed with rowdy athletes, celebrities and wealthy Dallasites: Tony Dorsett, Hollywood Henderson and Ed Too Tall Jones huddled in a booth with former Miss America Phyllis George, Dandy Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and two unknown, blonde Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—all drinking tequila, except Cosell, who drank a double Jack Daniels neat—while Clint Murchison and Tex Schramm made the rounds hugging all the hulking football players and their blonde wives and girlfriends. (If these names are not familiar, you’re probably 35 or younger and most likely you are not a Texan—never fear, Google is your friend.) The mood was beyond festive—it was downright electric. It was January 15, 1978 and the gathering was the Super Bowl XII postgame party. Roger Staubach’s beloved Cowboys—America's Team—had just defeated (former Cowboy) Craig Morton’s Broncos 27-10 to win their second super bowl of the decade. (It should have been the second of three in the 1970s—damn you, Jackie Smith, for missing that perfect spiral in the end zone during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIII in 1979 and breaking this eight-year-old fan’s young heart.)

The band performing at the postgame party was the Dallas Cowboys Band, and the band director was my dad. Near the end of the set in the middle of a song, most likely (Jerry Jeff Walker’s) "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" or (Chicago’s) "Saturday in The Park," he looked over to the table where my mom sat and noticed her chatting with two “scruffy characters”: the first was a hippy with long, braided pony-tails, a beard, and a red bandanna wrapped smartly around his head; the second gentleman had dark, shoulder-length hair, a shaggy beard, sunglasses, and a black cowboy hat. My mom was engaged in conversation with them oblivious to the fact that she was talking to two Texas legends.

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings—the two legends in question—seemed at ease visiting with the thirtysomething piano teacher, and by all accounts they had a pleasant conversation. I don’t know what they discussed, but I’m fairly certain my mom had no clue who they were even after they performed—in spite of hearing Willie sing his Billboard chart-topping hit "Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain," which had been released just a couple years earlier. You see, my mom was a classically trained and accomplished piano teacher more familiar with Chopin, Brahms and Debussy than any contemporary music composed after 1920. Without a doubt, she was completely unfamiliar with country music, and for the most part she still is today. (She can expertly play Rachmaninoff and Chopin by ear, but wouldn’t know more than two words to Whiskey River.) My dad was only vaguely familiar with either Willie or Waylon at the time, as his favorites included John Phillip Sousa and Beethoven, and he had only passing awareness of the country western canon. (Beyond the half dozen songs the Dallas Cowboys Band played, his knowledge of country music probably wasn’t much greater than my mom’s.)

Raised on the Radio

As a child I was steeped in both the classical music tradition—thanks to mom and dad, who taught me piano and trumpet, respectively—and in 1960s and 1970s rock and roll, thanks to my older, rock ‘n roll obsessed, siblings. From my sister Debbie I learned to love Steeley Dan, E.L.O., and Paul McCartney & Wings, while my brother Billy introduced me to The Who, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Rush, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden—and far too many more hard rock bands to mention—that informed my musical tastes for the next fifteen years or more. Other than the occasional Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers song—"The Gambler" was a huge hit and every kid at school knew it by heart—I too was utterly oblivious to country music despite living deep in the heart of Texas. (Full disclosure: like most kids in suburban Dallas I owned a cowboy hat in junior high during the Urban Cowboy/Kenny Rogers Gambler era, and proudly wore it to Redbird Mall on at least two occasions, but I quickly abandoned this look in favor of parachute pants and a black AC/DC concert t-shirt from the Back in Black tour.)

In college at SMU—not exactly a bastion of country music—I discovered George Strait and Garth Brooks through friends and girlfriends, and I pretty much ignored everything else on Country radio or in the country section at the record store. Garth’s “Friends in Low Places” was a keg-party hit on most college campuses—at least campuses in the south—so it was virtually impossible not to be aware of country music in the early-1990s. On a few occasions during junior and senior year we visited Adair’s Saloon on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum to see Jack Ingram, a fellow SMU student (go class of ’93!), sing songs by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I always liked seeing his sets, as did all the sorority girls at SMU, but I didn’t rush out and buy lots of country music. At the time, country had too much twang for my post-‘80s head-banger tastes. (Little did we know that Jack Ingram would have a couple of his own Billboard top ten hits a decade-and-a-half later.) For the most part, I continued listening to rock and roll and paid no mind to country music.

In August 1993, after graduating from SMU, I moved to Boulder, Colorado to carve out a new life for myself in the Rockies. I was thrilled to escape the late-summer Texas heat, and by September I had fallen in love with Boulder. Moreover, my love affair with the mountains, which began as a child on family vacations to Rocky Mountain National Park, grew even stronger.

Yet something was missing. I wasn’t home—not that Dallas really felt like home anymore. Still, I had a yearning for Texas that was ill defined and faint, but omnipresent. It was like a constant itch for which there was seemingly no ointment or remedy.

“Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” – George Strait

Driving home for work one day I searched all the radio channels for something different and I stumbled upon a local country station playing “Amarillo By Morning,” a George Strait song I had heard in college. This melancholy song always reminded me of the 14 hour drive from Dallas to Boulder, along Highway 287. I always dreaded that long drive until I was actually on the road and out of Big D traffic. Each time I made it to Amarillo, at around the half-way point, I was alone with my thoughts staring out at the dry, panhandle prairie grass in the hot Texas sun under a wide open blue sky, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. There is something special about that landscape, about which I daydream even today, even though I haven’t been in the Texas panhandle in more than a decade. It’s the same land my great-grandfather Kelley worked as a cowboy on the famed XIT ranch, and my attachment to it is palpable, albeit manufactured since my only real panhandle experience was driving through it on family road trips. After George’s classic song finished I left the radio dial on this station and listened to song after song—and I didn’t change stations for six months. I learned all the Nashville hits of the late-1980s and early-1990s and began buying country CDs, including just about everything by George Strait and Randy Travis. Apparently, I liked the twang after all.

Then, one day listening to KBCO—the local college station that played an eclectic mix of rock, blues, hip hop, funk, classic rock, and alternative country—I discovered Lyle Lovett. Lyle, a fellow Texan, wrote songs that resonated with me in ways that most mainstream Nashville country music did not. He was not on country radio often—at least not in the Denver/Boulder market—but he was a favorite at Red Rocks Amphitheater and on KBCO. I was instantaneously a fan. And I still am. To me, Lyle’s music just sounded like home. Beyond that simplistic explanation, I couldn’t easily identify precisely why I liked him so much, I just knew that I did and that I craved more.

While he is a fabulous songwriter, Lyle’s recordings also introduced me—through his outstanding cover songs—to other great Texas songwriters such as (the late, great) Townes Van Zandt (Fort Worth), Robert Earl Keen (Houston), Steven Frohmholz (Temple), and Michael Martin Murphy (Oak Cliff/Dallas) to name but a few. Within a year, I owned every Lyle Lovett CD and had also begun collecting Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Pat Green, Kris Kristofferson, Delbert McClinton, and Steve Earle—all artists you’re less likely to hear on mainstream country stations outside of Texas. Additionally, I began to collect more and more Willie Nelson CDs, and eventually my collection of Willie almost began to outnumber my rather large Elvis Presley library. (Don’t worry, Elvis will always be the King, but Willie is clearly royalty in his own right.)

“When I Die, I May Not Go to Heaven
I don't know if they let cowboys in
If they don't just let me go to Texas, Boy!
Texas is as close as I've been.”
--Tanya Tucker”

The longer I lived away from Texas, the more I got into country—especially Texas singers and songwriters. By the time I got to Chicago in the mid 2000s, my radio was almost always tuned to one of two stations: the local NPR station and US99.5, the only country station available in this town of nearly ten million people. (Only when my daughter is in the car and I’m forced to listen to an endless loop of Hannah Montana songs do I veer from my daily diet of country music and left-of-center national public radio stories.) I still listen to rock ‘n roll regularly, just not on the radio. (Thank God and Sam Houston for the IPod—I finally ripped all my CDs onto my Mac, which currently consists of 6,942 songs, enough music for more than 51 days. Halleluiah!)

For the longest time I didn’t analyze my evolving tastes in music. Why did I begin listening to country music after I left the DFW Metroplex, where there are at least 11 country radio stations on both AM and FM? Only after living as a Texpatriate for more than a decade did I begin to understand my newfound love of country music—especially Texas country. Through the rootsy songs of Waylon and Willie or the poetic sensibilities of Lyle Lovett and Townes Van Zandt, I was able to connect with the sounds of the homeland, even if it is a part of the homeland I didn’t really know and appreciate when I lived there. And to me, that is the irony—I ignored country music as a Texan living in Big D, but I love country music as a Texpat living in Chicago.

The very best country music—especially Texas country—has a genuine, authentic quality. Indeed, country songwriters tend to eschew cynical irony in favor of straightforward authenticity. Of course, authenticity does not preclude humor, and there are many hilarious examples of downright silly or self-deprecating cowboy humor found in songs by George Strait and Willie, among others. The more lyrical country songs—such as Lyle’s “North Dakota,” George Strait's "I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” or any song on Willie’s classic album Red Headed Stranger—are sublime elegies to a simpler, less complicated rural existence that is now mostly a memory. Much like the mythic American cowboy found in movies and literature, country music helps us reconnect with our frontier past.

Thirty-two years after the Super Bowl XII postgame party, neither of my parents is much of a country music fan in spite of seeing Willie and Waylon perform live in their prime. I’ve often asked myself the question: if I still lived in Dallas, would I listen to country music? Dallas is home to one of the best country stations in the U.S. (99.5 The Wolf), which I now listen to when I’m back home, but I doubt I would be a fan of country music had I remained in Texas. If I had stayed, I just wouldn’t have that constant itch of the Texpatriate.

Country music is one way in which I try and hold on to my Texanism, along with TexMex cuisine, Longhorn football on Saturdays, my subscription to Texas Monthly, Shiner Bock, Ranch Style Beans, my chocolate brown Lucchese boots, my faded Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers baseball caps, my dog-eared copy of Lonesome Dove, and the myriad Texas swag on my desk at work. If that means I had to alter my tastes to satisfy some subconscious need or deep insecurity about being away from the homeland, then so be it. At least I discovered just how good Texas country music is, even if it took moving 964 miles north to Chicago.

“Whiskey River Take My Mind/Don’t Let a Memory Talk To Me”
– Willie Nelson

Listening to Texas country music in Chicago is a sublime juxtaposition of extremes. The lazy sounds of Texas country music compared with the constant assault on the senses that is life in the big city do not obviously mix well. Country music frequently refers to wide open spaces and the slow pace of country living. Meanwhile, city life exposes one to a vertical lifestyle in tall buildings with millions upon millions of people all moving in different directions at a frenetic pace. Still, for me the two—country music and the Windy City lifestyle—are now a part of who I am, and I have somehow managed to incorporate both into my evolving identity.

Quite often, when I’m on Lake Shore Drive driving south toward the Magnificent Mile, I will slide my favorite playlist (“Lively’s Texas All Stars”) into the CD player in my Texas-sized SUV and listen to the opening guitar riffs of Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River. The song crests and Willie’s guitar solo—accompanied by a blaring harmonica—explodes throughout the car as I exit Lake Shore and merge with speeding taxis, hummers, limousines and rowdy bike messengers onto Michigan Avenue, where the cool, black John Hancock building towers over me to the east and the ornate, white Water Tower made from Joliet limestone rises to the west. As I take it all in, I acknowledge the slick, modern, urban beauty of my new home as well as the rawness of country music, and I thank God for Willie Nelson…and I thank God and Sam Houston I’m a Texan.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome. I never liked country as a youngster either and I skipped the Garth/George appreciation, but I love the Texas guys. I know Jack -- but didn't know he went to SMU --- I'll tell him you said hi. I have a wierd thing with Lyle Lovett; we went to the same doctor for years and his cousin is one of my good friends at church (she converted!) but the wierd part is that about half the time I go to the Four Seasons in Austin (which isn't a lot -- but a couple times/year for one thing or another), I run into Lyle. I've never run into him anywhere else, but I swear I've run into him at the 4S half a dozen times. Last summer one of my friends and I decided to go there for a drink (raspberry mojitos -- yum) and I walked in and said jokingly, "I wonder if I'll run into Lyle tonight" and my friend Laurie looked across the lobby and said, "Yup -- there he is." And there he was! You know Keith Sewell from D'ville is in his Large Band, right?