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

R-4228864-1476643388-5891.jpeg

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.

Advertisements

“be your bro” – those darlins (2011)

R-2721610-1298062883.jpeg

Musician deaths can be shocking for many of us for many distinct reasons.  The language of music is universal and impacts each of us.  Various genres, bands, or songs give us unspoken meanings that can change as quickly as the weather or become an unmoving representation for our lives.  That fluidity music possesses to affect people different at any given time is what gives it power.  Music becomes the backdrop for singular moments or whole uprooting changes and gives reference point for who we are at any given time.

Last week, Jessi Zazu passed away at the age of 28 from a public battle with cervical cancer.  Zazu was the leader singer of Those Darlins, a female alternative rock band from Nashville, Tennessee.  Those Darlins wanted were hard-hitting and wanted to show the world that music coming out of Nashville could have edge and be hip.  As early as 2011, the band was absolutely exemplifying that and even being featured by organizations such as NPR.  This was an exciting group of young 20-something women who were set to light the music world on fire.

Unfortunately, the band would disband in 2015.  And at the end of 2016, Zazu publicly shared her diagnosis.  Her cervical cancer was caused by HPV.  In the same rebellious spirit in which she led Those Darlins, Zazu shaved her hair off in a bold embrace of a new chapter of her life.  Music would have to take a backseat as Zazu pursued chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer.  Despite putting up a brave and courageous fight, she passed away on September 13th.

When I heard the news about Zazu’s death, it did impact me.  The band was based in Nashville and I was travelling to Nashville frequently in 2009 and 2010 for work.  I wasn’t aware of the band at that time, but I understood their desire to shake of the city’s country image.  Nashville is full to the brim with exciting musical talent and legendary venues.  It is a music lover’s paradise, but it struggles with the perception many outsiders have due to the overwhelming pervasiveness of country music there.  However, underneath all the cowboy hats and snakeskin boots, Nashville has a punk heart.

Occupying the same city at the same time doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.  However, what affected me more was that Those Darlins was the first band I had seen in Chicago.   It was 2011.  All in the last week of February, I flew from Alaska into Nashville, drove to Chicago to find an apartment, drove back to Kentucky to pack in one day, and then move everything to start a new life.

Once I got everything organized and settled, it was time to figure out the city.  I love live music and sought opportunities to see bands that never come to Alaska and who I would miss in Nashville.  Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears were scheduled to play Double Door on April 2nd.  Tickets weren’t that expensive and I really wanted to see this band.  I had played cuts off their first studio album all the time on the college radio station where I volunteered.  I knew they would be a good live show and I wanted to hear cuts I loved and new tracks from the album they had just released.

While Black Joe Lewis would be the first concert ticket I bought since moving to Chicago, they wouldn’t be the first live act.  Nope.  That honor would go to their opener.  And that opener was Those Darlins.

I was a few feet from the front of the stage and blown away by the performance.  The band packed in so much energy and ferocity.  It was like they played as if their lives depended on it; as if this was the last chance to prove they had what it took to succeed.  It is disappointing when you a see a band, especially a band that is new to you, just phone it in.  But, that wasn’t the case here.  This was great raw music that told me that I had made the right choice moving to Chicago and that I would never tire of exploring what it had to offer.

I don’t remember the exact set list, but I do know they were promoting their new album Screws Get Loose.  While I cannot remember every song they played, I do remember highlights that ar3e forever burned into my memory.  “Be Your Bro,” one of my favorites from that album, I remember was performed with an awe-inspiring intensity.  The song is about a girl wanting to befriend a boy, but the boy only wants from her what young boy wants.  Zazu sings about playing in the mud with this boy, but he is too distracted in his quest to get into her pants.  The song is great on the album, but it was a special thrill to see it live.  The timeless tale of girl tired of boys’ shit was delivered with fire and fury and looked as though performing the song on stage was a cathartic experience for the band.  And I’m sure it was.  This was a badass group of hard-rocking women and they wanted to be heard.  They wanted their share and no one to tell them no.

Sadly, the was the only time I ever saw Those Darlins live.  I had other opportunities, but passed them up because of life’s various obstacles and obligations.  Given the band’s disbandment and Zazu’s proceeding death, I wished I made the time.  Of course, nothing could touch that initial performance I saw. As my first live band in Chicago, that is a significant memory.  And while seeing additional shows would be fun, they wouldn’t carry the same emotional impact as that first time when I was in my early 20s, fresh-faced in a new city, and ready for anything.

“goodtime romeo” – price jones (1985)

R-1019452-1184730236.jpeg

There is musical treasure everywhere and a lot of different ways to find it.  Some ways are easier than others.  A lot of people now find new music online through streaming services like Spotify or Pandora where sophisticated algorithms can recommend you music based on certain criteria that interests you most.  In the days before the Internet, you had to order albums from catalogues or thumb through bins at your local record store.  What was once the norm has become a bit of a novelty today.  Sure, vinyl sales have been increasing and the role of the record store in the community has been enhanced with events like Record Store Day.  However, the physical act of looking through the bins past the more popular releases is still a niche one.  It requires a level of patience that is harder to find given all of the conveniences computers and mobile phones provide us to find music instantly.

Whenever I go into a record store and see people looking, it mostly consists of people grabbing the new releases or older copies of well-established bands that have been around for decades.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.  Life isn’t a contest and not having been exposed to certain popular artists is no measure of one’s love of music.  It is about the journey and there are many paths to take.

I have had my share of interesting record store hunts.  Living in Chicago, there are several great record stores in the area with their own unique charm and stock.  I may be in the mood for one store one day, and in the mood for a different one on another.  On a warm day, I enjoy walking around the neighborhoods, stopping by, and perusing even if I don’t intend to buy anything.  My vinyl shopping habits are specific.  I rarely buy new records, I rarely buy new releases because they were recorded digitally, and I prefer an obscure compilation album over any other type of release. I have found a lot of cool, obscure releases by looking where others typically don’t often look. These obscure compilations have obscure artists, interesting cover art, and were cheap. Many of these are still in heavy rotation on my player years later.

I never really shopped for vinyl records until I left college.  Growing up, I didn’t live in places where music stores were readily available.  I lived in Alaska where they had an FYE, a store with overpriced music and nothing incredibly obscure, or Wal-Mart, where everything they sell is commonplace.  There was no cool, niche music store.  Even when I was in high school in Kentucky, I didn’t have anything nearby like I would have now.

In college, there was one record store.  But, I was a broke college kid and not exactly interested in spending money.  Though, it didn’t stop me from trying new things and listening to people who had more access to music growing up than I did.  I spent all four years in college actively involved at the college radio station.  It was great because I got to discover things that were outside of my wheelhouse.  I was expanding my tastes and it allowed me to become more open and accepting of less mainstream and less accessible types of sounds.  I was a bit envious of everyone because they knew about all this stuff for a while.  It was all new and exciting to me.  I’m sure it was for them when they were younger, but they didn’t know what it was like to not have much access in the first place.

Released in 1985, “Goodtime Romeo” by Price Jones was something played for my by a college radio colleague that still stands as one of favorite tracks from my collegiate years.  It was a cool electronic pop song about this woman hooking up with this awesome guy.  Nothing was particularly spectacular or groundbreaking about the song.  The lyrics are fine and the arrangement is on par for the style at that time.  However, it is a fun pop song and it doesn’t have to be deep or shatter listening norms.

What made this track really exciting was that my colleague had found it in a record store in Nashville. He didn’t know the artist, but liked the cover.  As it turns out, he was blown away by the track.  Since then, he hasn’t found out anything about Price Jones.  He believed this was just a home-pressing with only a few copies in existence.  He also suggested that Jones could’ve been a successful pop star if the record would have been given to the right people.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I like the fact this is a really unknown song.  It kind of makes things a little more special when I listen to it; like I’m in an elite music club with only a handful of members.  In a time before I was a record shopper myself, I tended to gravitate to the fringe and indulge in the obscure.  Now, I do that on my own in my leisure time and have found some amazing material.  Sometimes, the most valuable treasure isn’t what is shiny and glitters the most; it can be the small, inconspicuous coin at the bottom of the pile.  Happy hunting.