“hey, good lookin'” – hank williams (1951)

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One of the things I do in my spare time is volunteer for a local music school in their archives.  It is a really chill place where I do some data entry, help teachers and students find materials, and organize parts of the collection.  Sometimes, I just sip on a beer while reading or listening to one of the thousands of records available in the archives.  Other than the people who come in and out for any reason, I usually am just chilling by myself.  Though, once in a blue moon, I’ll be asked to train a new volunteer.

I received an email from the archives manager that a new volunteer was coming in and I was asked to train them.  Yeah, I could definitely train them.  I am the one who trains most of the new volunteers since I’ve been an active volunteer myself for several years.  Sometimes, these volunteers end up becoming regulars during shifts at different days or different times, or they might do a shift or two before moving on.  Usually, it is the latter.  And this was especially true for this newest volunteer, but not for a more typical reason like boredom.

Other than a first name, I had no idea what to expect from the person who was coming in.  Given that the classes tend to skew older most of the time, I was expecting someone my age or a retiree who was looking for something to do.  I certainly wasn’t expecting an extremely talkative, 23-year-old waitress sporting a cropped sweater and leather skirt, with an aspiration straight out of Hollywood.  Though, that is what I got.

Since I usually spend the three-hour-plus shift by myself, I am really unaccustomed to holding lengthy conversations in that place let alone lengthy conversations that involve me just silently listening to someone younger than me excitedly ramble endlessly about their dreams and aspirations.  I know I’m coming off as cynical and a bit judgmental, but I was not.  And the reason being is that this girl reminded me a bit of myself at that age.

It didn’t make sense to me why this girl was training with me when she told me she was leaving Chicago at the end of the month.  Within the last few months, she had developed an admiration for old country, western, and bluegrass music, which were all genres she knew nothing about and had generally avoided.  This all changed when she visited Nashville a few weeks ago and fell in love with the city.  Now, she was getting all her affairs in order so she could buy a bus ticket, carrying only her guitar and a single suitcase, and looking to make it big in the Nashville music scene.

Now, all of that really struck me as super weird at first.  Think about it.  Young women hops on a bus to travel across country pursuing her dream to become a star.  If that sounds like something you would see in a movie, it is because it is.  It is one of the biggest tropes of the entertainment industry.  However, she was so excited about all her plans and I couldn’t help but listen.

I am not naturally someone who is going to put someone else down or invalidate their feelings or aspirations.  Quite the contrary.  During the conversation, I gave her as much advice as I could as some of the things she was telling me I had considerable experience with.  For one, I used to work in Nashville while I was attending a university in Kentucky, which were only an hour apart.  And since Nashville was so close, friends and I would often go there to see shows and hang out in a city much larger than our college town.  Plus, I was super familiar with the Greyhound bus route she was taking, so I had learned all the tips and tricks to surviving a smelly, uncomfortable bus ride for ten hours.

Beyond the advice I could give her about life in Nashville and how excruciating Greyhound can potentially be, her story spoke to me on a more personal level.  She was telling me that other than that one visit, she had never been to Nashville before and she was trying to figure out everything as she went along.  I completely empathize with that because I went through the same thing at her age.  Like her, I was 23 when I made a major change in my life by moving to Chicago to work in the city’s film industry.  I had never been to Chicago before (except for when I was about five), didn’t know a single person in the city, and had no job or school or any other institution like those waiting for me.  It was as fresh of a start as you could get.  It was exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. I remember I had quite a bit of anxiety when I was trying to get settled (the economy was awful at that time), but this girl was expressing absolutely zero worry about such a move.

When I made that move, a lot of my friends were telling me how scary they though that was.  And the reason being is that people these days, especially millennials fresh out of college, just don’t do that anymore.  However, uprooting your life and moving across country with no safety net was not uncommon in generations before mine.  People still do it, but it is far less common.  So, it can be fairly typical for someone to tell you all the reasons why such a change is risky, and it can be discouraging.  While I had some concerns about this girl I was keeping to myself (like the fact she’s moving into a giant mansion owned by a couple that just happens to be in possession of a tour bus owned by the band Alabama), I told her she should go for it and watched her eagerly take notes of the advice I was giving her as someone who had went on a similar journey.  Though, my journey involved a U-Haul and was less like a movie trope than a pretty, young woman hopping on a Greyhound with a suitcase and a guitar.

When the shift ended at 9:30, we were still talking about the trip.  Since I live really close to the school, she came over to chat about it further over whiskey.  Then, I pulled out my guitar and we played a couple of songs together.  It was getting late and she had work in the morning, as did I.  So, she called for an Uber and I wished her luck.  Even though she may not find what she is looking for, she’ll be fine.  When you get that itch, no matter how scary the journey may be or how much uncertainty you may have, you just have to chase that dream.  Or else you’ll regret it.

During our conversation, she was telling me about some of the country music artists she recently discovered that were inspiring her to go on this journey.  One of them, of course, was the country legend Hank Williams. You cannot say you like country music without knowing Hank Williams. And you for sure cannot walk around Nashville without his visage emblazoned somewhere.  His biggest hit, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, recorded in 1951, is a country music staple and, frankly, one of the greatest American songs ever recorded.

We listened to some Hank that evening, though that song didn’t come up.  She was very impressed by the size and variety of the archive that we ended up listening to a whole bunch of different country artists.  I don’t remember much of what was playing because it was primarily in the background as we talked, but this Hank classic seems appropriate for this week’s blog entry primarily for its legendary status in the genre and a reminder of the time I spent in Music City. The Country Music Capital of the World.  Nashville.

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“what will the new year bring?” – donna fargo (1975)

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Everyone just seems so tired with 2016.  Between the seemingly endless celebrity deaths, the surprising election results, and personal strife, the past year has earned a disdainful spot in the hearts and minds of a lot of people who are just wanting to move on with their lives.  My social media feed is filled with posts demanding that 2017 be better or behave as if it is some sort of conscious entity that can be controlled.  However, that’s not the truth.  Time is indifferent.

People are exhausted and worried.  And I understand why.  While a new year holds uncertainty, we all want it to be better than the last year.  If you happen to believe all of the editorials and social media posts about what a terrible year was 2016 was, it is easy to become a part of the disillusionment.  And when that happens, people cling desperately to any hope they may have left.  So, something as symbolic as a calendar changing years overnight means so much.  Our society places so much importance in the concept of a fresh start that we seem to think we can relegate the abstract concept of time to fit within our rules.  However, that’s not possible.  I think it was some Irish prophet who said “nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”

I won’t say that people’s worries are unfounded.  The inauguration on January 20th seems to be the specter hanging over the beginning of 2017 and fueling a lot of the worry I am witnessing.  I’m no different.  I am concerned too.  But, that’s a real event with real world consequences.  I think what has become tiresome about the talk of 2016 being so bad concerns the endless posts and articles about celebrity deaths.  If that is your criteria of what makes a year so terrible, you need to redefine your priorities.   Surely, we lost a lot of great people.  And we will never forget them and the influence they have had on our lives.  But, they’re dead and they cannot do anything for us now.

Each year has it’s own ups and downs and 2016 is no exception.  Over the course of every year, there are moments where humanity shines through, moments where darkness settles, and moments where we just don’t know what will happen.  We cannot control what happens over the course of 365 days, but we can choose how we react to it.  If you want to think this year was terrible because of a few celebrity deaths, then do it.  However, that is one small aspect that makes up the complicated fabric of time that we confine to a certain length.  For all those bad things where we place that meaning, there are a lot of great things that happened as well.  As for me, I don’t want to walk into 2017 already afraid of what may or may not happen.  We’re stronger than that as a society.

Acknowledging that life can go in all sorts of directions is important to getting through rough periods.  Put any bad moments in the context that things will get better and you’ll appreciate the good moments more.  And, of course, there will be more dark times.  But you will get through them.  None of knows what will happen.

That is why I love the song “What Will the New Year Bring” by Donna Fargo.  A bit more optimistic than other New Year’s anthems like “New Year’s Day” by U2, Fargo’s sweet country western tune is about having faith that you can survive during times of uncertainty and darkness as long as you have hope to stick together.  There is something so simple to that and it gives me hope.  It is when you start to overthink about what could go wrong, you quit thinking about what is going right and how you can use that when times are bad.

In Fargo’s song, she knows that you must put things in perspective.  The past year was good for her, but the year before was a little rough.  But, that is old news.  What about this new year?  Will it bring us love and joy? Probably.  Will there be more growing pains to add to the ones already weathered? Likely.  That’s just what happens over the course of a year.  You must take the bad with good.

Fargo doesn’t know what the new year will bring, but she still seeks out the positive outcomes.  Though she is asking the question whether her or not her partner will continue to love her the way they do, they key is the way she is thinking.  Frame the uncertainty from a more positive perspective.  All things will end.  Whether it is a marriage, a friendship, or a life, all things must pass.  But why worry?  There’s no use.  Fargo asks if her partner will only love her for a year or two or perhaps even four or five or six hundred years or more.  None of them knows the answer, but they still celebrate the New Year and whatever is in store.

2017 will be no different than 2016.  2017 will be better in some ways, and worse in other ways.  That’s a fact.  But we can get through this.  Let’s not get distracted by celebrity deaths or what’s trending on social media.  Let’s continue to work together to make sure the next year was better than the last.  And if not, then let’s not lose hope and try again.  With love for our friends and neighbors, we can make the impossible possible and the world shine brighter.

“rose garden” – joe south (1968)

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For the last year, I’ve been taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.  I’m fairly pleased with my progress.  I have managed to go through the entire core program of classes which involved learning chords and developing different strumming techniques.  At times, it would be difficult especially when learning barre chords.  However, I have enjoyed it all the same.

People have asked me why I chose to learn guitar when I had never played an instrument previously in my life.  Most of the questions pertain to what I expect to get from the experience or what I am going to do with my skills.  I get asked if I’m going to form a band or perform at open mics.  My answer is quite simple: none of the above.

I’ve always wanted to learn an instrument.  Now that I am in my late 20s, I really have no ambition of becoming a musical performer and trying to make it in the music industry.  I’m sure when I was younger, I would’ve loved all of that and I still get those rock and roll fantasies in my head from time to time.  But I don’t have any ambitions to get on the stage.  For me, learning guitar has been a more private and personal journey.  I see it as a great hobby for me to keep up with in my home.  They say it gets harder to learn new skills the older you get, but I actively fight against that.  I never want to stop learning and I never want to stop trying new things.  A year ago, I picked up something new and stuck with it.  That’s a personal victory I enjoy.

I love music and love learning about it.  And learning guitar was another step in that process.  It has also given me a new perspective on less popular and well-known artists.  In my music collection, you’ll find obscure artists and records.  I enjoy the novelty of a part of a small group privy to such artists.  However, learning an instrument has also allowed me to appreciate more well-known artists that somehow stayed under the radar; an artist who is both famous and not famous.

Joe South is certainly one of those musicians I would call a not-so-famous-but-famous musician.  He is most famous for penning “Rose Garden” in 1968.  Not even his version is the most famous version, but he is still moderately well-known for that song.  And rightfully so.  It is a well-written and beautiful song about the realities of love.  It is certainly one of my favorites.

Beyond that, the rest of South’s career isn’t as recognized.  He released multiple albums and a few dozen singles over his career, though many artists more famously covered his songs.  He also had a stellar career as a sideman for many iconic albums including Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde¸ Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, and Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  However, sidemen don’t get the respect of recognition they deserve in helping to craft amazing songs.

South had a respectable career including winning some Grammys and being inducted in the Songwriting Hall of Fame, but he still manages to be an amazing country artist that gets overshadowed.  “Rose Garden” is his quintessential masterpiece.  Kicking off a drum beat in the same vein as “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes, guitars and castanets come in with a moving yet reserved rhythm.  South’s vocals are solid on this track with a wide range of emotion conveyed in his voice.  There are moments of yearning and pleading to his lover, but there is also a lot of hard truth with slight hints of anger as if South could walk away from his love at any second.  It is not just of the best country songs ever written, but one of the best ever.

I do think it is a shame his career wasn’t bigger because it certainly deserved to be.  Or maybe he was someone who enjoyed their privacy and staying out of the limelight.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I respect that decision.  I’ve grown to really appreciate artists whose careers were impactful, but not immediately known in the public consciousness.  Joe South had more of a career than I ever will, and that is fine by me.  I’m perfectly fine continuing to learn my craft and never have to get on the stage and prove it to anyone.

“piss up a rope” – ween (1996)

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Humor is incredibly important to me, so I try to find it everywhere I can. That is how part of me deals with negative situations a lot of the time. I may worry about certain aspects of what is going on around me, but I’ll always find a way make some fun of it. Humor is an incredible coping mechanism.

Ween’s 1996 classic “Piss Up a Rope” is quite a stupid song. And I love it. A single from their country concept album “12 Golden Country Greats,” “Piss Up a Rope” serves as a stellar parody of style and thematic elements in country western music. Loss, grief, and anger are all subjects prevalent in country western music. In these songs, the singer loses their wife, dog, truck, or whatever, but they move on with little to no emotional baggage. How do they do it? By just brushing it off with a smirk and some colorful way of telling someone to take a hike. Dean Ween says the inspiration for the expression “piss up a rope” came from his dad saying “aw, go shit in your hat;” a nonsensical way of saying “whatever.”

The main focus of the track is the songwriting. While the music adds to the concept Ween is developing, it isn’t anything really exciting. Besides a distorted guitar solo, the music arrangement is fairly generic. It serves its purpose, though. The key to the song is authenticity if it is going to live up to the western theme. With vocals led by Gene Ween, “Piss Up a Rope” is a story of a man who has had enough of his loud, abusive wife. Gene has had enough of her shit and is ready to give her the ol’ one finger salute and end this terrible marriage in the most hilarious way possible; stupid lyrics colloquialisms.

Ween is famous for their strange, experimental style. They’re very consistent at being inconsistent. Some of their material is way out there, but all of it is rich in humor. There was a lot of material to choose from, but I’ve got a soft spot for “Piss Up a Rope.” It is a song that is committed in recreating an entire thematic experience. It is not a song for everybody and for obvious reasons. Music like this is really an acquired taste for its reality-numbing effects. And Ween doesn’t care. If you can’t cope, then piss up a rope.