Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Slave Ambient, by War on Drugs (Album of the Week)

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

This album was Robin’s choice for our series (we alternate), and I’m glad she did. I don’t think I would have happened upon them otherwise, or if I had stumbled across a track, I don’t think I would have noticed how really good they are. This album is solid rock and roll, but it’s not designed to grab you and make you pay attention.

Part of the issue is that the influences on this group shine clearly. The first song, “Best Night”, is Tom Petty. The second one, “Brothers”, is Bob Dylan. The third, “I Was There”, is Neil Young. You could make a parlor game ripping sounds out of this album and assigning them to classic rockers. I even caught a bit of Joe Jackson in one of the songs.

But that’s kind of unfair, I think. The music feels authentic – it’s not like they found a trunk full of sounds in the attic and just tossed them together to appeal to my nostalgic demographic. The album has urgency, built with steady, steady beats and all kinds of embellishments, from electronica to some crisp guitar work. It’s kind of unusual to hear the sounds that could come from a synthesizer band popping up in a straightforward rock song, but it works.

All that said, this album somehow just misses for me. Something is missing. Maybe it’s the lack of a ringing chorus to hang on to, or maybe it’s the pretty smoothing over of the synthesizer work, but I can listen to most of this album without bobbing my head or wanting to sing along. There’s nothing wrong with this album, but it doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t annoy or offend me in any way, but it isn’t compelling. I can’t imagine anyone listening to any of these songs and saying “You’ve GOT to listen to this.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone snapping off the radio when one of these songs come on.

This album just kind of takes up space, reminding you of its influences, but not rising to their level.

Robin, with her tendency to research deeper than I do, comes up with a more informed review, but, ultimately, she agrees that it is ambient music that kind of slips by you if you don’t work extra-hard to pay attention.

Next up, Small Town Heroes, by Hurray for the Riff Raff

Give the People What They Want, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Album of the Week)

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

If the people want classic, enjoyable, snap-your-fingers funk and soul with clear and brassy-voiced female vocalist, this album is exactly what they want. I suppose there may be people out there who would not like this album, but I would never want to hang out with them. This is fun stuff, and you’ve got to be able to enjoy it.

It’s all here. Swinging brass, bopping sax, great bass lines, sharp vocals delivered crisply and accented with classic back-up singers, even shaking tambourines. You’ve heard this music before, back in the late 60s and the 70s, on tinny transistor radios, from people like Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. Some of these songs could have been slipped onto the American Graffiti soundtrack album and nobody would have been the wiser.

I guess that leads to a question. What’s the point? There’s no new sound here – why listen to it instead of the already-established masters? Even acknowledging that this is top-shelf stuff, isn’t it several decades late coming to the party?

Two answers (rationalizations?) come to mind. First, there’s always room at the top, and this album belongs at the top of the heap of Temptations, Supremes, Pips, Shirelles, and the rest. Yes, it really is that good – it’s not some pale throw-back. It’s full-blooded and wonderful.

Second, this is survival music. It has contemporary meaning – it might be a sound that we associate with a certain era, but it is fresh and vital like Brubeck or Patsy Cline or Bob Marley. It’s not nostalgia – it’s mood and meaning.

There’s a backstory to this album that banishes nostalgia for me. Sharon Jones was a corrections officer at Rikers Island. She’s not some slick corporate trick pulled out of a conservatory. This album was supposed to come out in 2013, but they shelved it when Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer. And the Dap-Kings have been around for years, and toured with Amy Winehouse, where I am certain they saw the catalog of contemporary woes. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings somehow bring fresh urgency to their music. There’s a seriousness that is way, way back in their music. It’s the same seriousness that infused the music of those Motown artists with a depth beyond the lyrics focused on dancing and dating in an age of blatant racism and segregation.

This is fun, completely enjoyable music. But we love it because the pain is real, and the survival is real. When Sharon Jones tells her man to “get out”, she might as well be singing about whatever is bothering you at work today. When she swaggers through “Stranger to My Happiness”, we share her determination to get on with life.

Maybe this is a bunch of BS, and I just like this album because it sounds great and reminds me of when I was a kid. I think there’s more, though, because it somehow feels a lot bigger than that.

The Deliberate Obfuscator also appreciates the energy and wants to see a live show. Yes, indeed, that would be a helluva good time!

Next Up: Slave Ambient, by War on Drugs

Jake Bugg (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Jake Bugg is a month away from his 20th birthday, but his eponymous album has won critical and popular approval. It takes guts to tackle the “kid with a guitar” genre head on, but Jake Bugg’s effort is moody and engaging. The sound of this album could come from the B-sides of old 45s – he pays homage to Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly while making his own music.

It’s all about the sound for this kid. I was actually disappointed when I read the lyrics. The performances make them sound more meaningful and inspired than they really are – which I think is quite a testimony in favor of the music. Here, for example, are the complete lyrics to his song, Fire:

Girl, baby girl
Will you come back home?
To me
For this darkest night won’t ever let her be

And sing, fire, fire, fire
Oh I’ll sing for you
My girl
Baby blue

Babe, oh babe
Will you love me so?
When I have to go
For this darkest night won’t ever let her speak

And sing, fire, fire, fire
Oh my darling you, are blue
For me

I promise, it sounds like there’s a lot more to it when you listen to the song! It helps that his voice has a vinegarish quality that gives an edge you wouldn’t expect in such a young performer.

Despite his youth, Jake Bugg gets a little bit more credibility than I might have offered Kacey Musgraves because he grew up in a massive housing project in England. His look-back song, Two Fingers, proclaims “I got out I got out I’m alive but I’m here to stay/ . . . /Hey, hey it’s fine/I left it behind.”

His youth and English outlook provide an unintended bit of wry irony in the unfortunately over-stated “Seen it All”, where he writes about crashing a gangster party where “a friend took me aside said everyone here has a knife.” Too which I can only say, GASP! A knife?! Golly, what about slingshots – do they have slingshots? Sure enough, someone gets dragged outside and stabbed, leaving young Jake Bugg to react, “I’ve seen it all now I swear to god /I’ve seen it all nothing shocks me anymore after tonight.” Please, music industry, don’t let Jake Bugg do a tour in the United States, where we have a gun homicide rate 90 times higher than the UK – and a total homicide rate 4 times higher. No, Jake, you haven’t seen it all until you see a child getting buried after a drive-by while fear-choked political idiots insist that it’s all part of our right to have a “well-regulated militia”.

Sadly, Jake Bugg is in for a few more shocks in his life. For his music, though, I think that will be a good thing. His lyrics need to grow up a bit for him to be a complete artist. He manages to wring some truly impressive material out of a couple years of adulthood. This album is great – really great – and if I could pre-order his next album, I would. Better yet, I wish I could order an album from a couple decades in the future. [Having now read Deliberate Obfuscation's review, I learned that he has already released a second album. I'll be listening soon.] If his debut sets the trajectory I believe it sets, he could stand with or exceed any of the greats. He’s that good.

My partner in this series of reviews, and pretty much everything else, gets kind of mooshy about his looks and sensitivity, but she agrees he’s got a lot of talent. Go read her review here – she tracked down a few videos of him performing.

Next up, Give the People What They Want, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Listening to Kind of Blue is like swimming in a river. The waves, the current, the sense of movement and subtle change, even the two-shored boundlessness of a river carry me into the music. Where a pop song has the dependable rectangularity of verse, chorus, verse chorus and the 3-4 minute end is always in sight, you don’t know what’s around the next bend, but it will be the same river with the same currents and rhythm.

I greatly enjoyed this album, but I need to acknowledge that I do so from a position of near-complete ignorance. I had to resort to a fairly elaborate metaphor in my first paragraph because I don’t have the technical expertise to describe the thing itself. If you look elsewhere, you can read about how this album represents a break from be-bop and a move toward modal jazz. It somehow freed jazz from restrictions placed on it by scales, or something like that. I don’t know or understand how experts chose this as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.

So, this puts me in the “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” camp, I suppose – a place populated by defenders of Kenny G with Thomas Kincaid paintings on their walls. I’m not proud of that, or even, really, accepting of that. Ignorance is not okay. My lack of jazz or even musical knowledge is a failing, not a naive strength.

Kind of Blue is melodic, and it’s accessible for enjoyment. But I realize that I do not appreciate Kind of Blue in the way that a real musician might. Enjoyment without real appreciation is the best I can do.

One of the quirks of instrumental music is that it works on my imagination or thought process, such that I really struggle to focus entirely on the music itself. The problem, if it is a problem, is heightened when I am listening to a CD instead of witnessing live music. With live music, I can watch the performers and really focus on the music, but a CD offers a solely aural experience, and I find myself distracted. Even great jazz like this becomes background music – great background music – when I listen on CD. Lyrics in pop songs keep me anchored in the music a little better, but Kind of Blue allows my thoughts and imagination to wander along. Not a bad thing, at all, but more evidence that I am not getting as much out of this music as a better listener might.

If you’re not particularly well-informed about modal jazz or musical theory, I imagine that you will find this album extremely enjoyable. If you are a musician or a student of music, everything I read says that you will recognize this album as a work of genius. Either way, Kind of Blue is an album that you ought to have in your rotation.

The Deliberate Obfuscator also enjoyed this album, though she brings slightly more sophistication to her appreciation as a former (current, occasionally?) trumpet player.

Next up: Jake Bugg, by Jake Bugg

Same Trailer Different Park, By Kacey Musgraves (Album of the Week)

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

This album is a lot better than it sounded to me on my first, casual listen. The first few songs are polished to the point of slickness, and sung by an awfully sweet and pretty voice, and my mind begins to shout objections. Where’s the authenticity? Where’s the grit? What kind of hothouse flower is this 25 year-old CMA phenom? Uggh – get me some growly Ryan Bingham stat!

That reaction is mostly because I’m a jerk, though. Maybe, just maybe, if there were a tiny streak of sexism in me, it could be that I find it harder to appreciate a beautiful feminine voice because it seems a little light and airy. Just maybe, if I had a bit of grumpy old man in me, I would roll my eyes at a 25 year-old writing about real-world experience unless she is straight out of Compton.

Amusingly, Robin’s review over at Deliberate Obfuscation struggles with some of the same prejudices. Unlike me, though, she thinks she could nail a karaoke version of some of these songs. (Yes, I realize that sentence is dangerously ambiguous.)

After a week of struggling with my own inner assholishness, I have come to appreciate this album a lot. Kacey Musgraves is a bright young talent who is likely to only get better. She’s smart, she has an eye for detail and an ear for music. Some of her songs are great, and her career has taken off since she finished 7th in Nashville Star (apparently, a TV singing competition) when she was 19. She’s going places, whether the grumpy old man in me likes it or not.

What is it that overcame my sexism and ageism? Mostly, it was the excellent lyrics accompanied by solid country sound. Her ode to RV life is a light-hearted romp:

Water and electric and a place to drain the septic
Any KOA is A-OK as long as I’m with you
So come on hitch your wagon
To the living room I’m draggin’
If I can’t bring you to my house
I’ll bring my house to you

She also demonstrates an admirable willingness to thumb her nose at the “Moral Majority” segment of the country music establishment, most notably in the final two songs of the album. In “Follow Your Arrow” she points out the futility of trying to escape the disapproval of others, and advises:

So make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points

She even repeats the “Follow your arrow/Wherever it points” in a sing-songy way that could make it a Disney song if not for where that arrow is pointing. She follows that advice with the believably immoral booty-call, “It is What it is”, in which she calls a former lover and suggests a pleasant way to pass the time:

But I ain’t got no one sleepin with me,
And you ain’t got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it ain’t,
Anymore

Now, let’s not fool ourselves. There’s definitely a well-thought-out career calculation involved in choosing to line up with the fun crowd in 2013, and she’s not exactly taking any Dixie Chick risk here, but she is walking a little closer to the edge than she needs to, and I appreciate the individuality.

This album was definitely worth the struggle of getting past my own prejudices. It’s not going to wind up on my top albums of all-time list, but I suspect that if Kacey Musgraves continues to step on toes and put out albums, her third or fourth album might be there.

Next up: Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis

The Blueprint 3, by Jay-Z (Album of the week)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Listening to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 is an enjoyable lesson in humility for a guy like me. The enjoyable part is the music – much of it is catchy, upbeat and big. Drum riffs, rhythm, lyrics that are a guilty chuckle – it’s a fun album. But it’s also a bit humbling. There’s a whole world out there that I don’t know anything about, and Jay-Z isn’t writing his songs to make me feel hip. The album is full of references and slang that I simply do not catch.

Shocking, isn’t it, that a middle-class, middle-aged white guy might have a bit of this album go over his balding head?

Perhaps even more shocking is that I liked it. This music was definitely not written for my ears, but its head-bobbing, foot-tapping rhythms penetrate even my sluggish senses. You don’t want to visualize or even know this, but I even busted a few corpulent moves while playing it loud this morning.

It surprised me how many of these songs I recognized. Jay-Z is a big deal, and his music reaches us even if we’re not actively seeking it. “Thank You”, “Empire State of Mind”, “A Star is Born”, “Reminder”, and “Young Forever” were all familiar.

So, what about the lyrics? What about the “N-word”, and the disrespect for women? What can I say – what should I say? The Deliberate Obfuscator goes there, and her review of our shared album is much more high-minded, serious and probably insightful. You should read it – she makes some good points.

Honestly, though, I can’t get that worked up about it. Part of it is that most of the lyrics come too rapidly for me to really hear them clearly. They function more as sounds than as narrative for me. I catch a phrase here and there, and I can sing along with most of the choruses. Much of what I catch is slang I don’t know or references that I don’t know. “I gave Doug a grip and lost a flip for five stacks.” Huh? “Look here-ah, see Ye is running the Chi like Gale Sayers.” Alright, gather that someone known as “Ye” is thriving in Chicago like Gale Sayers, a running back whose name I do recognize. Yea, me – I’m hip! But what does running a town mean – he talks a lot about it with Kanye and Rihanna in “Run this Town”, but I don’t really know what he’s talking about.

Amusingly, Jay-Z sparked a whole lot less controversy than Megyn Kelly when he announced, “Grown men want me to sit em on my lap/But I don’t have a beard and Santa Claus ain’t black.”

Again, I know this is not an album designed to enthrall Dan Ryan. I’m listening in on something that doesn’t intend to pertain to me. I could probably find out what all those references are and become more fluent in the slang, but, really, I’m okay just listening to the music and enjoying it on a shallow level. But if he starts dating my daughter, he better show her more respect than Shawty, whoever she is.

Next up: Same Tralier Different Park, by Kacey Musgraves

New Multitudes, by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Cover Art Taken from Woody Guthrie's Notebooks

Woody Guthrie left notebooks full of unrecorded lyrics when he died too young in 1967. Through the years, various artists have mined this mountain, and, when Jay Farrar staked his claim, he invited Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames to join in.

There’s much to love on this album, but a few annoyances. “My Revolutionary Mind” grabs me with its joyfully blunt lyrics (“I need a progressive woman;/I need an awfully liberal woman; /Ain’t no reactionary baby /Can ease my revolutionary mind”), but then Yim Yames screws up the ending with an orchestral attack that only serves to make it sound like a Beatles out-take.

But at least that track has an abundance of actual music. Too many tracks suffer from spare lyrics coupled with minimalist arrangements – unless you have a fetish for sparsity, you’re going to have a hard time enjoying some of the tracks on this album (No Fear and Talking Empty Bed Blues, especially).

Ultimately, though, these songs stick with you. especially if you give it a few listens. The different approaches brought to the songs by the 4 performers gives it enough variety to keep you interested, and then you’re likely to find a few of the tunes running through your head. It’s a neat concept to put found lyrics into music, and I think each of the performers approached the project with sincerity and respect, and it rings through.

I think this is a great album that would have been mind-blowing if they had called me up before releasing it. I could have added a few instruments to a few songs, and then we would have a gem. Thank God I have a harmonica in my car, to save this album from itself.

NEXT UP: The Blueprint 3, by Jay-Z

Want to Play Along? – New Project/New Year’s Resolution with a Jump Start – Album of the Week

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

When all my friends were issuing their “Top Ten Albums of the Year” lists, I had to sit on the sideline, even though I listened to and enjoyed lots of great music in 2013. The reason was that I could not think of ten times that I sat down and actually listened attentively to an album (or CD, or MP3 album). I consumed plenty of music, but that is like consuming calories. I rarely ate a proper meal.

At the end of December, the Deliberate Obfuscator and I decided to choose one album per week, alternating choices, and give it a listen. They won’t all be new, and we will mix up the genres. We plan to discuss the albums at our regular Sunday lunch, and I will post a brief recap of our impressions here every week, along with the selection for the following week.

Let’s be clear about this – we aren’t professional music critics. We aren’t musicians, and we have not studied music or musical theory. We will boldly go wherever we choose, and report back honestly, but we acknowledge our ignorance. We’re currently listening to Jay-Z, and we are going to react to the album we are listening to, and we will do so that we are going to miss a ton of what a real Jay-Z fan would catch. The downside is that we are massively ignorant about much of jazz, hip-hop, latin music, contemporary classical, and dozens of other categories. The upside is that we are approaching it with a sincere desire to learn and to like.

Play along if you like. It would make it a whole lot more fun if you would listen to the same music, and offer your comments, corrections, amplifications, anecdotes, suggestions, and personal reviews.

A Blatant Attempt to Make You Like alt.country Music

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

I visited some friends on a long roadtrip this summer, and they weren’t enthusiastic about the songs on my playlist. I said I would try to put together a CD to share my enthusiasm, and this is what I came up with.

It’s a huge challenge to define what is “country”, and I am both underqualified and opinionated (it would be a far better world if those two “qualities” were not so often found together). Artists you wouldn’t necessarily think of as country have certainly played with the genre. The Beatles did “Rocky Raccoon”, the Stones did “Wild Horses” and “Roses on Your Grave”, and much of Neil Young and Bob Dylan could fairly be claimed by country imperialists.

Country is kind of a feel thing, at least for me. There may be musical experts out there who have a firm definition and articulated standards for making the call, but much of what I lump into the category might be termed folk rock or even Southern rock by other people. Some of the things that push me toward counting something as country are instruments, themes and the prominence of vocals. Steel guitar is a big factor. I love the instrument, and its appearance makes me lean toward counting a song as country. Lots of blues songs veer mighty close to country in my mind because I lean that way. Harmonica is another instrument that I associate with country, though I’ll admit that it probably pushes more toward the blues.

Banjos make me think of folk music, but if there’s a banjo in a song and it’s not folk or Bela Fleck, I’m likely to lump it in with the country category. It’s part of the rural sensibility and down home roots of country.

Lyrics and vocals make a big difference too. Country songs tend toward the mournful or rowdy. While a lot of rock songs present a wall of sound with sometimes indistinguishable lyrics, most country songs let you enjoy the words, and they are frequently compelling.

There are classic themes of country music. Perhaps you’ve heard David Allan Coe sing about the perfect country and western song requiring lyrics about mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. That’s pretty good satire because there is so much truth to it. A lot of country music is about broken hearts, bad luck and loneliness. One of my friends described country as “whiny music” and said that it’s about people blaming others for their problems. There some truth to that charge, but I haven’t convinced myself that the symptoms of self-pity are any more severe in the world of country than they are in jazz, singer-songwriter rock, or, certainly, the blues.

I should include a note about tempo. Most of these songs are slow songs. There are plenty of fast-paced, danceable country tunes, but it’s my own personal flaw that I lean toward the easy listening side of the dial, with songs I can sing along to in the car. So sue me. On to the music.

Flowers and Liquor, by Hayes Carll
The first song is a cheerfully horny little ditty by Hayes Carll. No great meaning here, but the song is welcoming and bouncy, infectious and cheerful. Hayes Carll has a broad range, and he can bring the honky-tonk or bring you down with a sad song. He also puts on a heckuva good live show.

Flowered Dresses, by Slaid Cleaves
I mentioned earlier that I have a bias for the slow songs, and this song is one of my faves. I love this song. It’s love gone wrong seen through the eyes of a boy who loves his mother. Sappy? Oh, hell yes, but I think it’s well done and some of the lyrics are brilliant. “She stopped dreaming her dreams, and started dreaming his.” And I can really belt it out in the car.

Cigarettes and Wine, by Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell has a great story. Hard living and raucous, he got kicked out of the Drive-by Truckers because of his addiction-fueled misbehavior. That’s kind of an amazing thing. The Drive-by Truckers are famously rowdy. Getting kicked out of that band for misbehavior is kind of like being expelled from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for being preachy or from the Tea Party for hating black presidents. Fortunately for Jason, he found a good woman and a calmer life. His newest album, Southeastern, is his best yet. He still sings his old rowdy songs (we saw him perform about a month ago), but he’s apparently not living them anymore. And his song “Elephant”, about a friend dying of cancer, is too damned honest to listen to.

I Don’t Want to Die (in the Hospital), by Conor Oberst
“I Don’t Want to Die” is a new song, but it sounds to me like something you might’ve heard in an Oklahoma Armory show back in the early 60s. Frankly, this isn’t my favorite facet of Country, but it represents a fun but dark nod to some rockabilly roots.

When You Get to Asheville, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
“Love has Come for You” is a collaboration album of Steve Martin (yes that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell. I could’ve picked any song from this album and been just as happy. When I first heard it, I thought it would take a crazy optimist to believe that anything better would be released in 2013, and unless something miraculous happens this week, I think this is my favorite new music of the year.

The Heart that You Own, by Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam brought twangy to LA and introduced it to rock. This song sounds mighty good in the car, and I even karaoked it once in a New Orleans club. The pleasure of singing this song was worth the complete forfeiture of my dignity.

Whiskey Bottle, by Uncle Tupelo
Son Volt has an expressive guitar and a classic growly, whiskey-soaked country voice. Can you imagine being his high school career counselor? “Dude you’re going into country music.” “But I want to be a neurosurgeon!” “Nobody wants a surgeon who sounds like he’s been hung over for five days straight. You’re going to be a country singer.” “Well, all right.”

Dallas, by Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore is the real thing. He headed out onto the road a couple generations ago and he has kept a Texas country style alive. He belongs to a group called the Flatlanders that not only puts on a great show, but it represents a piece of Americana to me. It’s tempting to think of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders as a museum piece, but they still put real heart and current soul into the songs they sing. I would encourage you to see them the next time they come through your town, or anywhere near.

Mama’s Eyes, by Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle is the son of Steve Earle, an aging political troubadour who never achieved quite the acclaim he deserved. Justin inherited his father’s musical skills, but, fortunately, avoided his father’s somewhat grating voice. Remarkably, I saw Justin Townes Earle the same night I saw Jason Isbell for the first time. Our seats were a few feet from the stage; one of the advantages of alt.country over more traditional pop or rock is that the concerts are cheaper and smaller.

Getaway Car, by Slaid Cleaves
This song will remind you of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, but that steel guitar cuts straight through me. And I can crush this song while driving, plus I sometimes I add an awesome (to me) harmonica track.

The Weary Kind, by Ryan Bingham
For a few years straight, we went to Colorado around Labor Day with friends. We were walking down the street in Breckenridge when our friend noticed a flyer outside a bar listing Ryan Bingham as that night’s entertainment. He had heard of him, so we decided to go. Small, basement room with maybe 50 people in there, and the show was absolutely triumphant – probably the best live music experience I have ever had. The audience handed the band members shots of whiskey, and the whole thing was a blast that went on and on. Finally, the show ended and I found myself taking a leak in the restroom, and the drummer was at the next urinal, when we both heard the guitar start up again, and the drummer sighed, “He’s having too much fun to let it end.”

A few months later, Ryan Bingham won an Oscar for this song, which was featured in the movie “Crazy Heart,” about an alcoholic country performer living a gritty life on the road. The following year, the same week, we and the same friends went to see Ryan Bingham at Red Rocks, opening for Willie Nelson. Not quite the same intimacy, but another great show.

Still be Around, by Uncle Tupelo
You might recognize the voice a slightly younger Son Volt on this track. Uncle Tupelo was an influential band that helped develop the genre of alt.country. The guitar work and gritty lyrics still sound great years later.

Copenhagen, by Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams has one of the sexiest voices I’ve ever heard. When she sings a sexy song like “Righteously”, it shouldn’t be played in mixed company. Even a gigantically spiritual song like this sounds like pillow talk. I just read an article the other day that traces the birth of alt.country to the release of her first album. That’s one of those arguments that music critics can amuse themselves with, and I don’t care. Just let me listen to her sing.

Two, by Ryan Adams
Here is another famous addict singing a song that features compelling ambiguity. “I’ve got a really good heart; I just can’t catch a break. If I could I’d treat you the way you’d want to be treated, honest.” He’s just a great singer and performer.

She’s Got a Crush On Me, by Paul Thorn
Paul Thorn might be more justifiably considered singer/songwriter rock, but the guitar work emboldens me to claim it for my preferred genre. It’s just a beautiful song, and Paul Thorn is one of those performers who is so charismatic and sexy that if Robin left me for a seat on his tour bus, I don’t think I could hold a grudge. Keep an eye out for this guy in your town and definitely go.

Georgia On My Mind, by Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson is the genuine article, and a couple dozen songs could take the place of this one on this CD. He has certainly done whatever is necessary to be commercially successful, and yet he still retains that essential dignity of being an American original. If you paid him enough money, he would cover “Thriller” and do the dance, too, but beneath the money machine is a true country heart that ticks like a metronome.

A Better Place, by the Setters
I have arrived at an age where I’m not looking for philosophical/spiritual truths in lyrics written by twenty-something-year-old musicians, but this song really nails a lot of what I would like to say to the all the friends I’ve had. It’s beautiful, even though I (surprisingly) don’t sing it all that well.

So, that’s my intro to country. You just have to like some of this.

Dropping by Delmont, South Dakota, where my Father spent his childhood

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Delmont, South Dakota, is situated not far from Armour, or from Parker, or from either of the two Siouxs (City or Falls) that count for metropolises in the minds of Delmont’s residents. While the vast majority of human beings don’t even know that Delmont exists, for its residents, its location and even existence are just part of the assumed state of the world, just like the unremarkable aroma of oxygen and the temperament of cattle. For the natives, Delmont simply belongs there.

A railroad ran through Delmont, but it doesn’t anymore. While the depot helped provide a little activity, its impact would be easy to overestimate. It did not attract automobile factories or grand capitalist plans, but on the other hand it did not attract dance halls and gunfights, either. A depot is a fine thing to have, but it does not alter the primary natural resource of Delmont, South Dakota, which is dirt for plants to grow in.

And pheasants. Time was, people would arrive at the depot carrying shotguns from big cities. They came from all states to hunt the beautiful ringnecked pheasants, with their glossy bronze and green plumage.

The guy who sat next to me at the Steakhouse Lounge (a separate building from the Steakhouse, which was across the street) told me how, when he was a young man, the blizzard of ‘68 had been particularly fierce. It was his job to plow the roads connecting the farms and towns of that region of South Dakota. His boss, a pheasant hunter himself, attached a huge pile of seed corn to the plow and ordered him to toss a couple bags out every couple miles so that the pheasants wouldn’t starve in the snow-covered fields. “Back then,” he said, looking forward at the beer taps offering Budweiser, Bud Light, and PBR, “you could road hunt your limit in 10 or 15 miles. Now you can road hunt for 75 miles in any direction, and you aren’t going to get your limit. You might not get any at all.”

I asked him why the peasants had disappeared. (He didn’t offer his name, and I didn’t ask it.) He said that the raccoons and opossums ate their eggs. His friend next to him piped in, “It ain’t the raccoons. There’s always been raccoons. There ain’t no cover for them anymore. The farmers work right up to the fence rows. Back when we had pheasants, they couldn’t get the tractors right up to the fence line, so they left some ground where the pheasants live. With the new equipment, they can get right up there.”

My first drinking buddy nodded. “That’s it. It’s the loss of habitat. ”

On Highway 18, the road you turn off on to get to the road that takes you to the entrance into Delmont, I saw a motel with a huge statue of a pheasant with an open beak and panicked eyes. The motel was closed.

I was sitting with a group of four men at the bar, and I ordered the two piece chicken dinner for $6.99. It came with a side salad, my choice of potato (tater tots, thank you) and a side salad. I had the bleu cheese dressing on my salad, and the guy a few seats down ordered his with French dressing. My father, who grew up in Delmont, used to like French dressing.

Everyone in my newfound group of friends kept an eye on the road except the one guy at the corner whose back was to the road. The traffic was a source of wonder and conversation. “Now where she going?”, interjected one of the guys in an exasperated tone. The others seemed to know exactly whom he was talking about and why he voiced the question. Again, I didn’t ask.

They had also noticed a sharp looking Mustang convertible. They discussed its looks, and the rollbar it had, before one of the men gestured to me and suggested I might know something about it. Their suggestion that I had perhaps sat there silently as they discussed my car reflected their respect for taciturnity. When I told them my car was a boxy purplish bluish thing, one of the men turned to another and said, “The one with the Wentworth sticker.” They had noticed.

When I rolled into town, I stopped to take a picture of the entrance monument, cruised down Main St., over to second, and meandered a bit. I was looking for a Catholic Church, where my father would have learned the faith he stuck with through World War II, Korea, a life of selling insurance, and eight years of paralysis and near muteness because of a stroke. His circulatory system gave him fits as long as I knew him, commencing with surgeries for arteriosclerosis in his legs when I was still in grade school. He wondered if the cause was the food of his childhood. “This was during the Depression, and the farmers didn’t have any money to pay my father. So they brought in pheasants and butter and cream, and paid him with that. Nobody had any money, but man, did we eat well.”

During my meanderings, I found the public school, which was closed. It is still a grand, brick building with “public school” carved into the stone lintel over the broad front doors. I stopped to take a picture or two, and that attracted the curiosity of a man down the block. His tone made clear that he was really asking “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”, but couched in a more hospitable manner. When I explained that my father had attended this school until 1936 or so, he told me that the people who own the building lived a few blocks away, and I could probably get them to let me in to look around if I wanted. I told them I didn’t need to get inside and thanked him.

I never did find the Catholic Church. Later, on the way out of town, I found a sign listing the churches of Delmont, and there was no Catholic Church listed. Fortuitously, the conversation in the bar took a theological turn when a guy named Ed (name changed to protect the lovelorn) complained, in a jocular tone, that he was not going to date any more Catholic girls. One of the others concluded that the Virgin Mary wasn’t letting him get anywhere. He didn’t dispute the conclusion, and another of my beer buddies told him that Christians shouldn’t date Catholics anyhow. From the comfortable, jostling tone of the conversation, I gathered that one of my drinking buddies was a Catholic, and I felt confident I had not stumbled onto a den of virulent anti-papists. Having already explained the nature of my visit, I told them that my father was a Catholic. One of my companions, the Catholic one, had been born in 1941 and reported that, in those days, a priest came to town three times a year to give communion and take confessions. “You had to take notes on your sins, because everybody else was waiting, so you wanted to be quick.”

The 1930 census records don’t list a home address for the Ryan clan. My grandfather had, according to the census records, owned his own barbershop there, but no address was provided, and the town no longer has a barber. My Catholic drinking companion, the oldest one in the group, was surprised that there ever had been a barber in town, and suggested that perhaps my father was really from Armour, down the road a bit, because they had a barbershop when he was growing up. I told him that my grandfather left in 1936, and my family never seem to have a nest egg, so he had probably let the shop close rather than sell it. I took a couple pictures of the older – seeming buildings on Main Street, though I have no idea whether any of them house my grandfather’s business, nor which of the frame houses around town had been his home.

After I finished my meal, I paid my tab and left a $20 bill to pay for a round for my 4 friends. A round for four came to $12.50 (my frustrated friend/Catholic suitor was drinking a cocktail made from Crown Royal and amaretto).

On my way out of town, I stopped by the community cemetery. It is on a hill about a half mile out of town. They guy who had offered to summon the school owners had told me there was also a Lutheran Cemetery and a reformed cemetery. I didn’t ask what the second cemetery was reformed from, because it seemed that any deceased Ryans would have wound up in the community Cemetery, in the absence of a Catholic one. I wandered around, but didn’t see any Ryan graves. There were, however, many graves with no markers.

It would have been great to have found some evidence of my father’s time in Delmont. He lived there from 1922 to 1936. There was, of course, nobody in the bar old enough to remember him, and there were no faded signs for a barbershop. There is no hard evidence that I could find during my visit that any Ryan ever lived there. Census records and family word-of-mouth are the only things that tied my probing into my father’s past to this particular town in this overlooked part of the world.

My trip to Delmont didn’t add any data to my knowledge of my father. I gained, however, a sense of where he came from. A place where people notice a new car on the street and where a stranger can ease his way into the group at the corner of the bar if he chuckles at their humor and doesn’t ask too many questions. I think I found what I was looking for.